I sat enthralled today – listening to the “lecture” by the brilliantly human, jet-lagged David Grossman (a co-presentation of Nextbook at the Washington DCJCC and American University’s Center for Israel Studies program). In my opinion, Grossman is the resonating moral center of the universe – the model of public introspection. So he starts with a story about a short, elderly character in a novel of his and the “interiority” of a writer struggling to inhabit and be inhabited by characters who are totally different from his own experience and persona. David was sitting on a Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus six years after he wrote about this character and suddenly heard a section he wrote about her read aloud on the radio news “culture corner” that the driver was playing. A particular detail of an extra wooden pedal he’d given the character for her Singer sewing machine struck his creative memory – at just the moment that the driver changed the station to the delight of his fellow passengers. Grossman absorbed the insult to his book and to himself – and then jumped back into looking at what he had written about this short woman’s need for the booster pedal, as the kind of detail that is a link in a chain of writer’s attentions to human needs that make up the human texture of a story. He was then off onto a tour de force exploration of the interior journeys he experiences moving between small character detail and the enormities of parents and children, the Shoah, and the Israeli-Palestinian entanglement, among other topics and passions
There is joy and despair and disappointment in every life, in every world drama. Grossman writes and talks brilliantly about the joy and despair – the human challenge of it all. He is never a disappointment. So I purchased his novel The Smile of the Lamb, to have it signed – and exchanged a few sentences with him about the kind of dialogues we do here at the 16th Street J. He said, oh, I will sign it and write something. After he signed, I asked him a bit more about how the detail of characters and the world situations come to him and influence each other. (It happens as it happens. It’s not planned). Then a quick L’hitraot and I snuck away to read this inscription:
“To Stephen: For every thing you are doing to bring the two people to listen to each other. Thank You! David Grossman”
Thanked by David Grossman for maybe a glint in my eyes – a quick expression of yearning and purpose! I’ll read the novel, pay attention to character detail and the big picture – and cherish those words of encouragement always.
Stephen Stern is the Director of Dialogues and Public Affairs at the Washington DCJCC.