My thanks to Jeff Markowitz for letting his co-contributors to Jewish Noir II know about Art Taylor’s blog “The First Two Pages,״ and to Art for accepting my essay. Enjoy!
I, along with other contributors to JEWISH NOIR II (available Aug. 23) will be on a panel Zoom presentation sponsored by the Center for Jewish History, Wednesday, September 7, 6:30 pm ET.
Jewish Noir II: Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds – Live on Zoom
Wednesday, September 7, 6:30 pm ET
Jewish Noir II: Tales of Crime and Other Dark Deeds is a new collection of short stories by Jewish and non-Jewish writers, including numerous award-winning authors, exploring the light and dark sides of religion and culture, examining such issues as the enduring legacy of negative stereotypes amid rising anti-Semitism, prejudice, assimilation, and questions of regional, national, and ethnic identity.
Co-editors Chantelle Aimée Osman and Kenneth Wishnia as well as contributors Maria Bivens-Smith, Robin Hemley, Rabbi Ilene Schneider, and Xu Xi will be in conversation with Lauren Gilbert, Senior Manager for Public Services at the Center for Jewish History.
Program registrants will receive a code for 20% off the cost of the book.
Tickets: Pay what you wish; register at programs.cjh.org/tickets/jewish-noir-2-2022-09-07 for a Zoom link
Presented by Center for Jewish History
About two weeks ago, I wrote a blog entry about the difference between identifying and recognizing both birds and people, thoughts inspired by my ruminations at Starbucks about baristas, one of whom I would know with or without his mask, and the other of whom I doubted I’d recognize. I ended the post by saying, “I really hope if I ever bump into Jess without her mask, I’ll know her from her smiling eyes.”
Today, at the Evesham Township, NJ, Cultural Day festival, my hopes were not met. No, I did not recognize nor identify Jess, until she introduced herself to me.
In my defense, she wasn’t wearing her Starbucks baseball cap, which covered both the tops of her heart shaped glasses (I thought the frames were rimless ovals) and her purple-tinted hair that was pulled back into a ponytail when she was working.
But, yes, her smile, framed by a well-proportioned chin and displaying nice teeth, was a perfectly matched accompaniment to her smiling eyes.
My mind works in strange ways. I make connections that are obvious to me, but not to others. So please bear with me as I describe how I made the leap from bird identification to people identification to Starbucks baristas to masks and human facial recognition.
Among birders, there’s a difference between identifying a bird and recognizing one. When identifying a bird, we gather GISS – a general impression of size and shape – plus other field marks such as plumage, habitat, time of year. We then compare these characteristics to those of other birds, whether through memory or an illustrated bird guide. Sometimes we make an educated guess. Sometimes, we find a positive match. Sometimes, we give up and decide it’s a little brown birdie or a generic hawk (species).
When we recognize a bird, we don’t need to go through those mental gymnastics. We look at a familiar bird and think, “Blue Jay” or “American Robin,” and can tell at a glance that we’re looking at a Red-bellied Woodpecker, not a Red-headed one.
We do the same when we see people. Sometimes we have to make polite inconsequential chit chat while we desperately try to put a name to a familiar looking face; other times, we immediately know who the person is.
About a year ago, a new Starbucks opened not far from my house – not that there aren’t other nearby ones, too, but this one is closer and easier to reach (less frequent traffic jams to endure). There’s a young, new barista there, Jess, who greets me by name and knows my regular orders (either a mocha mint frappuccino – before they ran out of mint and couldn’t get more delivered, when I switched to mocha – or a mango dragonfruit lemonade). A few months later, another barista, Matt, was transferred from a different nearby branch, which I frequented pre-Covid. I immediately recognized Matt from there.
Both baristas wear masks. Despite their having half their faces obscured, I recognize both of them and don’t confuse them with the other baristas. But one day I realized that even though I would be able to recognize Matt if he weren’t wearing a mask, since I first met him before mask regulations were in effect, I would not recognize Jess. Maybe she has crooked teeth or perfectly aligned ones. Maybe she has a receding chin or a pointy one or a round double one. Maybe she has dimples. I have no idea.
I have had no problem recognizing masked people when I bump into them in a store or see them at the synagogue. I may do some quick identification data gathering first – most likely GISS – but except for a few grey-haired balding men, I haven’t been puzzled by who someone is.
And my conclusion: I understand now how facial recognition software works, even if I’m looking at my phone screen while I’m smiling or frowning or eating or turned slightly to the side. It, too, is relying on GISS, but more so, on the eyes. The old saying about the eyes being the windows of the soul is true. It is through the eyes we recognize people and how we can tell their mood, even when they wear masks.
I really hope if I ever bump into Jess without her mask, I’ll know her from her smiling eyes.
WHAT DO THE BAADER-MEINHOF EFFECT AND MYSTERY WRITING HAVE IN COMMON
The Baader–Meinhof effect, aka “frequency illusion,” is the name for the phenomenon in which you hear about something for the first time ever or the first time in a long while and suddenly the term seems to pop up everywhere you look. What has happened is that your brain is more aware of the specific subject and so you pay more attention to mentions of it.
According to Wikipedia (and dozens of other sources, but it’s the discusson that showed up first on Google and is the most succinct and non-jargon laden), “the name ‘Baader–Meinhof phenomenon’ was derived from a particular instance of frequency illusion in which the Baader–Meinhof Group was mentioned. In this instance, it was noticed by a man named Terry Mullen, who in 1994 wrote a letter to a newspaper column in which he mentioned that he had first heard of the Baader–Meinhof Group, and shortly thereafter coincidentally came across the term from another source. After the story was published, various readers submitted letters detailing their own experiences of similar events, and the name ‘Baader–Meinhof phenomenon’ was coined as a result.”
Note: “coincidentally came across the term from another source.” It happens all the time. It just happened to me the other day.
First, to understand how gobsmacked (great Britishism) I was, some background on my Work-in-Progress, Killah Megillah (and my continuing appreciation to Ellen Byron for coming up with the title). At the beginning of the book, my protagonist, Rabbi Aviva Cohen, receives a call from the overseer of a demolition project. In order to make room for more mini-mansions in a fairly rural area, they are taking down an abandoned building that decades earlier had been a synagogue. He was informed there was a trunk full of old, worn out Jewish books in the attic that needed to be removed and buried in a Jewish cemetery. Could Aviva stop by and authenticate the findings? While doing so, she finds a bag full of human bones in the trunk and the plot takes off from there. The trunk and books are the MacGuffin that sets the events in motion.
The synagogue building is situated on a fictional street called Walford-Southampton Road in a neighborhood once known decades earlier as “Jew Town,” but it is based on a real building on Hartford Road, in Mount Laurel, NJ, only a few miles from my house, in an area that decades ago was known as … Jew Town. It was a summer enclave for Jews from Philadelphia to get away from the heat.
I am taking a lot of liberties with my descriptions and history, but want to be as authentic as I can. So I’ve done a lot of research, found some information, but most of it scanty. Be patient – Baader-Meinhof is about to take effect (so to speak).
Last week, I paid a visit to one of my favorite sources for herb plants and native perennials, the Springville Herbary (springvilleherbary.com) on Hartford Road close to the old synagogue building, razed a few years ago for, yup, mini-mansions. I was chatting with Andy, a former farmer and Gloria’s husband, when, knowing I’m a rabbi, he said, “Did you know this area (long called Springville) used to be called ‘Jew Town’?” I assured him I did. “And,” he continued, “did you know that our land here was once a Jewish summer day camp?” No, I didn’t. I knew about the bungalows that had lined Hartford Road, most of which are gone, I knew that there had been a small number of Jews who lived in the area year ‘round, but that was all I knew.
Baader-Meinhof. I had been researching, writing, weaving history with fiction, and suddenly, out of nowhere, serendipitously, the topic not only came up in casual conversation, but added a slew of new information and sources for me to check out. Unfortunately, the camp director’s grandchildren had contacted Gloria to find out what she knew, as they don’t know anything about the camp, so they’re a dead end. But Gloria has a brochure from the camp and will send me a copy.
So what does this all have to do with writing? One of the most frequent negative comments made about mystery novels is “too many coincidences,” or “the author relies on coincidence to find out information.” I recently read a book by a well-regarded mystery writer in which the police detective’s best friend told him the killer confessed all to him in a drunken state before committing suicide. If it hadn’t been on Kindle, I might have thrown the book across the room.
But sometimes, coincidences are needed. And, in small communities, where many cozy mysteries take place, they are often unavoidable. I try to limit my use of them or at least make them seem like logical extensions of other events, but … it’s hard.
As I’ve learned in the past week, though, they do exist. Now I have to figure out how Aviva can learn the information without its seeming like a farfetched coincidence. To be honest, I’m having trouble accepting it, and it happened to me.
I stared at my still mostly blank monitor, the “Notes for Purim Talk” header still mocking me. I finally started to add a series of bullet points, beginning with the question of how many in attendance had read Megillat Esther and what they remembered of the story of Esther and Mordecai and Haman and Ahasuerus. I would then ask for a volunteer to recount the story, after which I would correct any misperceptions. If it were a Jewish audience, I’d ask them to find the passage saying that Vashti, the king’s disobedient and defiant queen and chief wife, was beheaded. But I wasn’t sure if a group of Christian clergy, who had probably read the story way back in their seminary days, had heard that bubbe meiseh, a cautionary tale for nice Jewish wives to obey their husbands or else. Athough, I would point out, in those days, a member of the king’s harem who was banished may as well have been sentenced to death, as she would become a non-person with no privileges or allies.
After my feminist screed, I would ask why a book that never mentions the name of God would become part of the canon, which would lead into a description of the popularity of Marduk and Ishtar and spring holidays celebrating rebirth, while skirting parallels with Easter, which falls only a month later.
Okay, this should be fun. I love tiptoeing through theological mine fields.
I added reminders to discuss Purim shpiels, satirical and irreverent skits; the commandment to become so drunk as not to know the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman;” and the irony of blotting out Haman’s name by reciting it. I figured I had enough to wing it, and closed down my laptop after sending the document to the printer. I hoisted myself off the couch and went out to Liz’s office to make sure the printer had worked. It had. She was looking over my notes and frowning. “Are you sure about all of this?” she asked. “Do you think they’ll be ready to hear about how Mordecai pimped out his niece or cousin or whatever relationship Esther was to him? Or that the vindictive Jews rioted and despoiled their neighbors’ homes? Hanged Haman’s sons? How unholy a book of the Holy Bible Esther is?” She softened her criticism with a grin and a wink. “I wish I could be there.”
This year is the 80th anniversary of the movie The Maltese Falcon. Pre-pandemic I would be immersed in the machinations of Bogie et al. while I was sitting in a comfy recliner, in the center of the 4th row, huge tub of overpriced buttered popcorn on my lap, a cup of overpriced soda in the cup holder, a smuggled in candy in my pocket.
But not this year.
The nature of movie going has changed this past year. It thrived as an escape from the Great Depression, from wars, from heat waves (there were air-cooled theaters before home a/c). It was only way to see a spectacle before huge TV screens. It was a temporary reprieve from heartbreak and/or loneliness, with the darkness giving a sense of both privacy and community. Movie theaters survived threats of demise even after Saturday Night at the Movies came to our TV screens, dedicated movie channels flooded the cable services, online streaming services offered films 24/7 at our own convenience.
But no longer.
Theaters in my area are open. Tickets are available to see the 80th anniversary airing of The Maltese Falcon. But I’m not ready to return. I’ll watch the movie – complete with recliner and popcorn and soda and candy – on DVD or computer from the house.
I’ll enjoy the movie as much as always, but it won’t be the same.
As the years go by, I’m becoming more insulted and annoyed by jokes assuming anyone over the age of 50 must be computer illiterate. I’m a couple of decades older than that now, and we got our 1st home computer, an Apple //c with no hard drive (saved files directly into 5.25” floppies), about 37 years ago. I was active online beginning about 34 years ago – anyone recall Compuserve when they charged 10¢/minute? I played Infocom’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with no graphics. I even had a RadioShack TR 80 model 100 laptop that I took to the library – no online databases or Google yet – so I could type notes and bibliographic info for my doctoral dissertation research onto it and transfer the data to my Apple //c via 2 phone lines. And I have kept up with new devices and operating systems. Okay, I may not be able to program a computer or really understand the technical details of how they work, but I can use the technology. Oh, and my 1st intro to computers was in the mid ‘60s (decade, not age) when my father hired me for the summer and taught me keypunching to update the inventory for the picture frame manufacturer he worked for. There were 3 huge machines – keypuncher, sorter, and printer – in a separate climate controlled room.
I’m having my car serviced today, and I’m going to wait there for it to be done. I’m taking my laptop so I can work on Killah Megillah, book 4 of the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries. And it’s not for Nanowrimo.
I have decided not to sign up for National Novel Writing Month for a few reasons. For one, you have to be starting a new manuscript from the beginning, not continuing a work-in-progress. I am not about to discard all the pages I have already written.
Related to that reason is the goal of Nanowrimo and my goal are different. Nanowrimo’s purpose is to encourage participants to produce a 50,000 word rough draft. My goal, OTOH, is to complete a polished 90,000 word manuscript to send my publisher.
Here’s my plan:
Step 1: Stop procrastinating.
Step 2: Reread what I’ve already written and edit it.
Step 3: WRITE.
Step 4: Repeat.
Will I finish the book in 30 days? Unlikely. But by the beginning of 2021? Possible.
How can you help? Ask how I’m progressing, not constantly, but enough to remind me “my posse” is waiting. The fear of public humiliation is a great motivator.