Sunday, April 10, 2005

An Eccentric Famous Author Walks into a Judaica Shop and Asks for Channukah Candles

Minor celebrities live amongst us and every now and then they visit the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies.

It was a little odd when two women walked in to my store last week asking for Channukah Candles. With Passover (the real Jewish Christmas) looming at the end of this month I recently completed an "Anatomy of a Seder Plate" informational card for our largely unaffiliated, uninformed clientelle base and these days am mostly fielding queries about matzah, chametz, miriam and elijah cups, Haggadah's and other Passover related items. Channukah seems distant. With the exception of our finest steel, brass and painted porcelin specimens, the menorahs and dressings have been retired to storage for the season.

I guided the women to a cabinet in the back of the store and began pulling out various boxes of candles. Hand dipped, scented, beeswax, clearence items, what was their fancy? Unconcerned with the price, they grilled me intently about the size. Will this fit in a normal menorah? how do these compare to the manishevitz ones in the orange boxes we used to sell as a fundraiser back in Hebrew School? Somewhat flummoxed I tried to explain that in theory at least, there was some sort of standardization system if only to ensure the candles burnt long enough to be in compliance with Talmudic law (what that time frame is, i couldn't tell you, we'd have to ask my father, the Rabbi).

One of the women was quite thin, in her 50's, with very dark, intense eyes. It became clear these candles were for her and her friend was just helping her shop.

"Get them both" she urged gesturing to the two pricey boxes in her hand "it's for you art."
"You make Menorahs?" I asked
"Well, I'm working on a design for one right now and at this point its all math." she responded in a way at once painfully deliberate and distracted. "I need to make sure the cups can accomodate a standard candle."

The three of us began heading back to the register. Always latching on to conversation with strangers to alleviate the boredom of retail I pressed on amiably.
"What's your medium?" I asked innocently expecting another mosaicist or metal worker.
The bird-like dark eyed woman paused emiting something between a hiccup and a chuckle.
"Actually, my husband and I are making a menorah out marble and a Bison Jaw. Can you get a picture of the shape in your head?"
"I think so" I nodded struggling to conjure up a vision of what this bizarre tex-mex judaica mash-up might look like.
"Do either of you have background in stone working?" I inquired casually, begining to enter the barcodes in the register.
She paused akwardly before delivering the strangest of answers.
"Well, I'm a writer. A Jewish Writer."

I wasn's sure how to respond to this. Perhaps the only other person who could have elegantly used such an answer in this context would have been Moses himself up on mount Sinai. Fortunately, Her friend intergected here.
"She's really quite well known. A wonderful writer, perhaps you've read her work, this is Kate Braverman you have here!"
The name did not register.
"I want to be a Jewish writer" I chirped. "I have an idea for a book but I'm too scared to write it, you know, my family and all..."
"Oh don't worry about that!" Braverman assured me "By the time its written they won't care. That's what I've found."

Right. sure.
"Tell me," she mused spacily, appealing to me flatteringly as some sort of comrad "Do you find that people are unreceptive to your writing as a Jewish woman unless you've had some kind of prim, perfect life?"
This confused me.
"Well what kind of story would that make?" I wondered with a sly grin, silently recalling the opening lines of Anna Karenina where Tolstoy states that all happy families are alike while all unhappy ones are each miserable in a unique way.

As I waited for her credit card to go through I hurridly scribbled my blog and email address on a post-it note and stuck it on her bag.
"I would really love to see a picture of your menorah." I said in complete earnestness.
"But of course!" Braverman nodded enthusiastically. "I'll send you a JPEG."

As soon as they left I immediately googled her name and found that she has written several novels and books of poetry and short fiction. Several of which have won some presigious awards. Entranced I stopped at the Harold Washington on my way home from work and checked out two of them: Lithium for Medea (a novel) and Lullaby for Sinners (poems).
So far I've only had the time to read a few poems, which honestly, are rather good.

I'm preparing to enter the eccentric world of Kate Braverman. And regretting I didn't ask her for her email address when I gave her mine.

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