Homo sovieticus: panel

She said that in East Germany they got Russian-accented calls from strangers saying they heard the wall was going to fall down. This was before the Germans knew. They said that with the collapse of the USSR, anti-Semitism came out. They said that after the end of Communism a quarter of a million Russian Jews came to Germany. The press assumed they were on their way to Israel, that they wouldn't settle in the land of the murders. They did.

They said one year more Russians immigrated to Germany than Israel. They said most of the Russians were atheists. They said many of them were old. They said they would not and will not integrate. They said they live in settlements around the country, closed and separate like Chinatowns, with their own newspapers and stores and gathering places. They said they brought the Soviet Union with them. They said they were used to a paternalistic state. They said the Jews had been engineers and teachers and doctors and economists. There were few jobs in Germany and the Russians thought most of the available ones were beneath them. They said the Russians were forced to join the official Jewish communities. They said the Russians weren't forced to join them. They said the Russians were forced to spread out to all the German regions. They said they were not forced.

(She said, Shh, shh, such loud voices and arguing on Shabbat!)

They continued. They said there are about 28,000 German Jews who have registered with the official community. They said there are Russians who come to synagogue for the free meals. They said many Russians refused to be circumcized or to have bar and bat mitzvahs. They call them Russians though they are not all from that giant republic. They said there aren't enough Jewish nursing homes for them. They said the German Jews are overwhelmed. They said the German Jews were used to their German-Jewish life, their language, their traditions, their tragedy. They said the Red Army veterans like to meet together and argue over who suffered most in the Great Patriot War. They said Germany wasn't built for receiving immigrants. They said no one knows exactly how many have come. They said the German Jews expected 250,000 Natan Sharanskys, davening. They said about half of the Russians have joined the Jewish community.

They said the Jewish infrastructure collapsed in the Shoah. They said that young, creative Americans and Israelis flock to Berlin and some of them stay. They said that most immigrants have to prove they've studied German, but not the Russians, or the Americans, or Japanese, or Canadians, and other privileged groups. They said the immigrants were considered Jewish in the USSR if they had a Jewish father, but according to Jewish law in Germany, they are Jewish only if they had a Jewish mother; they said that about half of them were not really Jewish. They said after the Russians settled, they sent for their non-Jewish families. They said that if Russians divorce, the non-Jewish spouses might be deported.

They said the German Jews don't want to complain about the Russians in public, they don't want the non-Jews to hear. They don't want to air their dirty linen. They said nobody will criticize the official German Jewish communities in public, either. They said the official Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities get government funding, not proportional to their numbers. (The Jews get more than their share.) They said the real scandal is that the millions of Muslims don't get state funding. They said it was because they had no spokesmen. They said the older Russians are isolated, and the young distance themselves from the past. They said the young go out into the German world and act as interpreters.

(They raised their voices. She said again, Shh, shh, it's Shabbat, and held her jacket up to her mouth, as if for protection.)

They said the law has tightened so fewer of them are coming.

They said without this immigration we wouldn't talk about Jewish life today in Germany. They said we're the last German Jews.

Greetings from Sofia--a jumble

(synagogue--I didn't take the pic)

Cancer Bitch finds herself in Sofia, Bulgaria, which is dingy but smells good, like lilacs. Garbage is collected at night. There was laundry hanging on the roof of a building across from our hotel. The Jews were saved in the Holocaust (though those from Macedonia and Thrace were sacrificed) and from 1948-51 most of them immigrated to Israel, specifically, to Yaffo. After the war, why didn't the Bulgarians fight back? one person in our group (mostly-European Jewish feminist conferees) asked on our walking tour yesterday. Fight back against the Soviets? They should have fought back against the Nazis in the first place. But look at Poland--it fought back and the result was about a 5-year occupation. Bulgarian is difficult if you don't know the Cyrillic alphabet, which was invented here. It's hard to figure out where you are if your map has Roman letters (like these) and the street signs, Cyrillic. But I found the synagogue yesterday where our tour began. The first night I went to a French restaurant (stumbled upon) and was excited that I could read the menu.
The women here are very skinny and wear tight skinny jeans and carry plastic shopping bags. Most everyone who's young wears jeans. THe women have dark eyebrows and some have dyed blond or red hair. No one takes notice of me, of my tourist-ness. You can look at a map on the street and people won't bother you. (Some of you will say that I'm no longer harassed on the street because of my age; I also learned a while back not to look people in the eye in foreign countries). The Jewish museum is in the synagogue and is one room. There are photographs of Jewish and Bulgarian history and a harmonium that used to belong to a Jewish musician and was used to a Jewish cultural center. Wizened old men and women sit on the sidewalk and sell giant thin and hard-looking bagel. Gypsy children ask for money. I saw, for the first time I can remember, a kid sitting on the sidewalk with a long open cut on his leg. I can't remember seeing such a large open wound before. Our group has more baggy clothes and curly hair than a Bulgarian group of middle-aged women. I learned today about the Falasha Mura, Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity 100 years ago and are trying to prove that they're Jewish so that they can move to Israel. But Jewish converstions are against the law in Ethiopia. In DNA tests, these Christian Jews as well as Ethiopian Jews in Israel do not have "Jewish DNA" characteristics found in both Sephardi (eastern) and Ashkenazi (western) Jews. I read somewhere that the two countries most obsessed with blood and land are Israel and Germany.
When Russia helped liberate Bulgaria in the 19th century, the soldiers destroyed all the mosques, except one, overnight. They told the Muslims that God did it. (Of course I thought: Therefore, they couldn't claim it on their insurance.) Our guide (Jewish Bulgarian) warned us against going inside the mosque because it is populated with many Palestinians. I can't imagine anyone attacking or harassing in a mosque. (Well, at least not here and now. We're not talking about Kashmir.) I also learned today that many young Israelis go to India seeking enlightenment and then come back to Israel, and use their new spirituality to connect back to Judaism. It seems like I have been away a long time. I left on Tuesday afternoon. I had a middle seat on the flight from Chicago to Dusseldorf, and from Dusseldorf to Vienna. Luckily the flight from Vienna to Sofia wasn't full so I had an aisle seat with an empty middle seat. The overseas flight was one long hot flash. We each had our own monitors and could choose among movies. I watched He's Not That Into YOu and then a Dustin HOffman movie. The kid next to me (on his way back home to Rome from a year in Berkeley as an exchange student) watched the Dustin Hoffman first and then He's Not That Into You. I wanted to ask him more about what he thought of Berkeley and Berkelians but I didn't want to intrude. I keep thinking of Huxley and his fear that triviality and cheap entertainment would take over.


I read in Madison with Kathleen Rooney, under the sign of death and next to a workbook on phobia and anxiety. I don't like this picture of me but it shows that my hair has grown.


I went boating tonight.

It wasn't exactly like this. The picture on the left makes me think of You've come a long way, baby, which was an ad for cigarettes that strongly and delicately gave women cancer. As opposed to Marlboros and Marlboro men.

I was in a motorized rowboat or non-rowboat with the coach of about a dozen women who'd had breast cancer and who were rowing two skinny boats with long oars. Skinny skinny boats. I had no idea. There were coxswains facing them, giving instruction from the front of the boat while the women rowed and went backwards. This is crew. This is rowing. We were on the dirty Chicago River, with styrofoam cups and all kinds of jetsam floating on it. We were out in Nature, it seemed sort of, because there were trees lining the banks or at the banks, but there was unidentifiable trash hanging from the branches, and there were also walls along the banks, as in Don't hit the wall! There was the smell of gasoline (from our boat) and an industrial polluted smell from all the industry alongside the river--mounds of gravel, rusty bridges, smokestacks, a crane that was picking up pieces of metal and stacking them into a boxcar--but also you could see the Sears Tower and annoying cookie-cutter brick houses. It was quite wonderful. If I had been out in real nature, I don't know how I would have felt. Frightened of the void? Maybe. Here there was no void, really the opposite of void.

The women are part of Recovery on Water, which I found out about a week or so ago. I want to join it and the first thing you do is observe, then work out on an erg or ergometer, a rowing machine in a gym. Some of them were wearing compression sleeves over their arms to keep from getting lymphedema; one of them got lymphodema years after surgery, the coach said. That scared me, because I thought I was immune to it, that I had passed the danger zone. Apparently not.

The coach is a young woman who hasn't had cancer. She coaches at a Catholic school, and some of the boys on her team rowed with the women. They did it originally for community service points, but J the coach says she thinks they've gone beyond the required hours. One of the boys was the coxswain, facing the rowers and giving instruction with some electronic gizmo transmitting his words to all of them. From our boat, the coach yelled things, like Lean back, lean forward, push, don't get the black part of the oar in the water, keep your arms straight, and beautiful when someone did well. I thought of a man I know in the suburbs who goes out in a kayak every morning and the way he described it I could tell he loved it and found serenity and sublimity on the water in the early morning light. One Saturday years ago I was in a kayak with a friend who loved kayaking. We launched from the Rogers Park beach and lots of water got in the very tiny boat and I couldn't understand why the boat was so small. If it were larger we wouldn't have gotten all the water on us. These kayaks were in the lake, which is much cleaner than the river. Though with all the muck in the river there were still fishermen today standing on a bridge and I suppose planning to eat what they caught.

It looked more like this. Image (c) Ignacius Chicago Crew
I kept wanting to get into one of those crew boats and try out rowing and thought about some certificate I got in summer camp asserting that I had achieved one level or the other in Canoeing. I liked Canoeing and Fishing because you got to sit down. Everyone says now that kids are coddled and that every kid gets a trophy and they get inflated ideas about their worth, and it was never like that before, but back in the 1960s and 1970s at summer camp we got certificates for everything. I got one for having the funniest little skit on Titanic Night. (Why we sang the Titanic song and dressed as hapless passengers is beyond me.) That was my most successful experience at summer camp. My sojourn lasted two days. I got mumps and spent a lovely afternoon in the infirmary, waiting for my parents to pick me up while I read Pollyanna and watched the denatured skunk who lived there.

After that, camp was downhill.

Balloon in the Womb

Yesterday the gynecologist took the fibroid from the mouth of my womb. She showed a picture of it to L and my mother, but I didn't see it. I heard it looked like this:

She used the new slice-and-dicer machine that mostly just makes clean-up faster, she said. She's operated with it about ten times, and with the regular fibroid-cutting loop about 200 times. She put a balloon in my uterus so that the walls of it wouldn't collapse upon one another. I get it removed on Monday. I had general anesthesia. I asked the anesthesiologist if I would wake up in the middle of surgery. She says everyone asks that and she blamed TV. I don't think I've seen it on TV. I think it's a universal fear. When I was in the first recovery room I felt a need to talk talk talk to the nurse. She and everyone else at Fancy Hospital were kind and jolly.
I'm supposed to move slowly today. I'm finishing my essay/presentation on Jewish cancer humor for the conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, June 25. I should be moving slowly and writing quickly. All the books about Jewish humor are about what you think of: shtetl humor, Yiddish-inflected men in the old and new country, a few misogynist gibes. We (Woody Allen, Henny Youngman, Rodney Dangerfield)are Ashkenazi (European) Jews, get laughs by being outsiders, powerless. A recent story in New York magazine (to be linked later) talks about how Jewish humor has changed since we are now so much on the inside. (Think Jon Stewart, ne' Stuart Kaminsky.) Larry David can get laughs as an outsider because his show is set in non-Jewish LA. Supposedly.
The Ashkenazim are from Eastern, Central and Western Europe. The Sephardic Jews are from the former Ottoman Empire lands. No one (here) examines their humor. Because we outnumber them vastly, vastly, in the US. There are French-Moroccan comedians, but I don't think they talk much about their Judaism. They are double outsiders--Arab and Jewish. Bulgarian Jews are mostly Sephardic and I will find out from them what their humor is like.
Before the war, there were tons of Jewish Austrian and German comedians. In Germany now there are terrible terrible anti-Semitic jokes about Jews and extermination camps.

I'm 27

New City Chicago's annual Lit 50 list of people "who really book" in Chicago:

27 S.L. Wisenberg
Wisenberg serves as the co-director (with Reginald Gibbons) of Northwestern University’s MA and MFA programs in creative writing. She’s also an author herself, most recently penning the at-times-devastating, at-times-wickedly funny memoir “The Adventures of Cancer Bitch,” which chronicles her battle with breast cancer.

Read about numbers 1-26 and 28-50 at:

Spots and Star

My doctor looked at the spots on my leg and was dismissive: An insect bite, she said.
So I won't worry.
I put bleach on the spots yesterday, just in case they were non-itchy chigger bites. One of my commenters had suggested that. At any rate, the spots are fading.

I got a review today in the Chicago Jewish Star:
"The Adventures of Can -
cer Bitch by S.L. Wisen -
berg (University of Iowa
Press, 164 pp.,
$25), nothwithstanding
the sub -
ject matter, has
hu mor (often
dark, it’s true),
tenderness, pain,
questioning, matter-
of-fact narrative
and not a lot
of anger as she
chronicles her illness.
...Along the way, Wisen -
berg has been weepy, defiant,
cynical, impatient, ap -
preciative, giving, curious
— and a myriad other
descriptions that would
She riffs on Freud and
Susan Son tag, celebrates
Passover, mourns the
death of Grace Paley, goes
to services for Rosh Ha -
shanah and Yom Kippur
(but doesn’t believe in
God), attends yoga classes,
teaches writing and, of
course, writes.
Her ego shows, but so
does her vulnerability.
.... She’s not a bitch
but a woman who
has faced a lifethreatening
with defiance and
courage, and who,
even when she’s
raging or struggling
against it can look
outside herself and
be a part of the world
around her."

Diagnose the Bitch!

Cancer Bitch looked down while showering today and saw two red bumps on her left leg, about six inches above her ankle. One is the size of a dime and the other about half the size. Both have irregular borders and itch slightly. Of course she had to immediately go to the Internet and found out that the bumps are caused by: diabetes, spider bites, tick bites, shingles, actinic keratosis, squamous cell carcinoma, bed bug bites, allergy, ageing, or else they're just one of those things. At the same time she was itching itching all over because of her polycythemia vera and got panicky because she'd taken Atarax (generic) an hour before and that was supposed to stop the itching and it didn't and if the Atarax is pooping out, then what is she going to do? She can't take Paxil, and benedryl isn't strong enough, and will she be itching like this forever and ever, and so uncomfortable and distracted because of it and what kind of life can you live like that? and so on and so forth. She called the hematologist, who wasn't available, and talked to her assistant, who said the bumps have nothing to do with her blood disease, and are not a sign of a blood clot. She hadn't thought so but had been a'feared anyway. He said she could try taking and he added that he had other patients with uncontrolled itching and he was sympathetic, and besides, she had an appointment in a week.

How was Cancer Bitch supposed to wait a WEEK when she was itching itching every single moment?

He also said to take Atarax every six hours. CB has been taking it when symptoms arose--sometimes, after four hours, sometimes after seven or eight hours. So she will take it around the clock.

The itching calmed down and the Bitch calmed down and went about her day. And was amused to find, via Google, that lots of dogs have raised red bumps on themselves. It's sad for the dogs, but shows how mysterious and universal these red bumps are.
CB had lunch with her friend D, who told her that a doctor said recently, referring to an eye problem: If it's bad, it will get worse. Which means, if it's not a bad or serious condition, it will resolve itself. Lunch was at Ben's Noodles & Rice, where you can get a lunch special (soup, appetizer, entree) for pretty cheap--$15 something for two, counting tax but not tip.

Cancer Bitch made an appointment with her internist for Thursday. (She needs to get an EKG at the doctor's anyway, to make sure her heart can undergo anesthesia before her fibroidectomy next week.) Cancer Bitch suspects that the hematologist and her assistant think that she consults with them about things she should be asking her internist; well, it's true, she does. The hematologists are easier to get on the phone and the doctor answers email.

So, dear reader, with a day and a half before the doctor appointment, armed with the description of the red spots, please make your diagnosis in the Comments section.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say!

Taking, Losing, Making

There are two empty houses on our block and one of them has been abandoned for 39 years, according to neighborhood lore. We want to dig out some of the plants and transfer them to our little front yard. I think it would be permissible to take from the very abandoned house. We think those plants with long thin leaves are some kind of lily but we have to wait to make sure. The other house has a boarded-up door, permanent scaffolding and a few nice white irises. We saw a woman working in the yard there last summer. She wasn't friendly. She refuses to sell, a neighbor told us, and this was before the market collapsed.

When I worked at AstroWorld amusement park, some of the time I helped the silhouette cutters. We all wore old-fashioned costumes because we were houses in the Old Towne Main Street or whatever (since razed). One silhouette cutter had panache and style and beauty but her silhouettes didn't look much like the kid (which the model usually was). She would make all kinds of bows and flourishes to gussy-up the profiles. She was such a dynamo that she could convince the parents that yes, this looked exactly like her child, don't you see? Kinda like the Emperor's New Clothes. The paper was folded so that each cutter made two silhouettes at once. If the people didn't buy the second one, we threw it away. (Which frustrated the parents, because they'd argue, Why isn't it free if you're just going to throw it away?) I would sweep up all the paper and occasionally I would take the extra silhouettes home and store them in my high school yearbook for use at a later time, which has not yet arrived.

The other cutters were a couple of art teachers from a small Texas town. They had no panache, just more precision in cutting profiles with special scissors. At dusk they would walk through the park making cuttings (guess it was in their blood) of plants that they liked. I thought it was stealing but you could argue otherwise. I suppose. Their silhouettes were more accurate and without the Little Lord Fauntleroy collars.

Last autumn our friends' son died and the mother is not wearing white or pastels, probably until the anniversary of his death. She writes letters to him. The father is thin and strained. She said to me, Do you have hope? and I said yes, and then I thought of Pandora's box, how after all the evil escaped, she managed to shut the cover before hopelessness was able to escape. Let us ignore for now the misogynist portrayal of Pandora, the first mortal woman, in this myth (curious, willful, girlish). Or maybe she shouldn't. One teller of the story suggests that she may have been a goddess originally, her immortality taken from her with the frequent retelling.

Sunday at Trader Joe's I saw two beautiful shopping lists, both held by women who were in the midst of referring to them. The writing was even and well-shaped, and both lists were the essence of lists, items printed in a column, one object pers line. I collect grocery lists but it is part of my ethic or personality (which is sneaky) not to ask for them. Enough with this Davy Rothbart, who founded FOUND, a magazine of found notes. I started collecting in the early 1990s or before. (And I have proof!! See my essay in Crain's Chicago Business, Sept. 28, 1992, about moving. I wonder if I should throw away or keep files such as the notes from the 1988 interview with Rich Melman; my collection of other people's discarded shopping and to-do lists, found on the streets over the last several years....) My idea was to hand them out in creative writing classes and have students create characters based on them. I've never done that. And someone else bested me: Hillary Carlip, a list collector since the age of 15, dressed up as the the characters she imagined behind each list, and got a book out of it all, A La Cart: The Secret Lives of Grocery Shoppers.

And FOUND is a book and a play off-Broadway and Rothbart brings his finds to This American Life, and Cancer Bitch has three books, but they are published by university presses, and she has no play off- or on Broadway and she used to hang out with Ira Glass (the first person she knew to put tomatoes in a stir fry) but that was many many years ago. Cancer Bitch has not started a national movement. One could say she is too inward, does not spread the wealth, as Rothbart does, with his "operatives" all over the US finding papers and sending them to him to publish. Cancer Bitch learned to use sesame oil from Gish Jen in graduate school, and you've heard of Gish, not to mention Ethan Canin and Dan Woodrell (no links to these people; you can find them yourself), with whom she also went to grad school, and she is feeling tres peevish (and doesn't know how to insert accents over letters) and keeps thinking of the essay Roy Blount, Jr. wrote the year that the MacArthur Foundation started designating (and paying) geniuses. I want a goddamned genius grant, he wrote. MacArthur fellow Robert Penn Warren is a great writer, but after all, what does he need to be designated a genius for? He's got a poem in every goddamned magazine you pick up.

There is some kind of lost web site where people write about objects they've lost. It is somewhere, way out in cyberspace, beyond sites about the TV show, and maybe by writing about the thing and posting a photograph, you can feel a little thump of satisfaction or compensation, the way you do when you wake up from a dream in which you've found that item you lost in the real world, and haven't yet realized that the dream was a dream.

And Cancer Bitch forgot that last week she started making art with her lists, sewing them onto satin, and while she was thus occupied she felt engaged and intense and satisfied, ye olde feeling that's been called many things over the centuries by people we've forgotten, and is now known in our century by the term that Mihaly Csikszentmihaly calls flow.