It’s said in the Talmud that there are three ways to be a good Jew: study, prayer and acts of loving kindness– Alexander Shalom Joseph thinks of his writing and work as a teacher as a mix of all three. Alexander’s Debut collection of short stories, “American Wasteland,” is forthcoming from Above Owl Canyon Press in late 2021 and can be pre ordered here https://www.owlcanyonpress.com/product-page/american-wasteland-stories-by-alexander-shalom-joseph
Alexander’s poetry chapbook, “Buttons and Bones,” was published by above/ground press in 2021. His novels and short stories have been short listed/finalists/or semi-finalists in the 2021 Autumn House Rising Writer Prize in Fiction, the 2020 Orison Fiction prize, the 2020 Paper Nautilus Chapbook Prize, and the 2020, 2019 and 2018 Faulkner Awards for a “Novel in Progress,” have been published by Tulip Tree Press, Witty Partition, Zodiac Magazine, Lotus Eater Magazine, Bombay Gin and in Clover: A Literary Rag, and have received four honorable mentions in New Writer Competitions for Glimmer Train Magazine. His poetry has appeared in Blaze Vox, Boomer Lit Mag.
Alexander is the host of the podcast of “American Wasteland,” and writes a weekly prose poetry column in The Mountain Ear Newspaper in Nederland, Colorado. Alexander has an MFA from The Jack Kerouac School, and lives in a cabin in the woods of Colorado.
In honor of his two books being published this year, BJN had a few questions for Joseph, 4 exactly:
We understand you’ve published TWO books during pandemic. Tell us about them, and what Lamed Vavniks are.
Indeed! I have had the great privilege of getting two books out there this year. During the lockdown and for the worst parts of the pandemic I was working at Naropa as an adjunct faculty in the writing department. I have been writing for around a decade now and have thousands upon thousands of rejections, but with all of this sudden free time and intensity I told myself it was time to double down on the writing and submitting and I had some luck. The first book, published in February of 2021 by above/ground press out of Ottawa, Canada, was a chapbook of a long poem called “buttons and bones.”
This poem was effectively a biography of and a letter to, in the form of 15 sonnets, my Great Grandpa Jack who fled the pogroms in Belarus and came to America in 1911. In it I reckon with what it means to be displaced from my ancestor’s homeland, how I engage with Judaism and what it means to be Jewish throughout history and now. One of the cool parts of this book is that all of the press’s books are handmade which resonates with me because Jack was a button maker and spent his life working with his hands. In the form of the book I was happy to sort of echo his life and hand-made feeling. If you’re interested in a copy of this book you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can drop one by, they are only five bucks.
I’ll share one of the fifteen sonnets here so you can get a taste of what this poem is like, this poem is the first poem in the series and sort of sets the stage for what is to come:
a button falls from a pair of blue and square patterned pants
I don’t know how to sew it back on
I have a bag of buttons my great grandfather made
hot cut formed by metal and semitic hands
I have no thread
no steady hand to guide a needle
no way pull the fallen parts together
I shove the pants in my hallway closet hide them the past away
threadless button loose in the pocket
then I sleep dream of textiles and family and dirt
of an unlabeled map a scribbled clearing
of a flattened shtetl a hometown fled before the war
of bodies buried behind the linen factory
of all our stories starting ending in the same smoke
The second book is being published August 15th by Boulder’s own Owl Canyon Press. This book is called “American Wasteland” and is a collection of short stories about finding meaning in the mundane day to day lives we lead today. I guess in describing this book, I’ll answer your question about the Lamed Vavniks.
So there is this idea in Judaism of the Lamed Vav or Vavniks, who are thirty six “Just people” from each generation who are tasked with justifying the existence of humanity to God. There are a lot of different artistic and Talmudic interpretations of what or who these Just men and women are, but most famously Andre Schwartz-Bart, a Nobel-Prize-winning Jewish Novelist, detailed the lives of a family of Lamed Vavniks in his book “The Last of the Just.” After learning about the Lamed Vavniks and after reading Schwartz-Bart’s book, I started thinking about how I could try to, through my own writing, justify our humanity to God. “American Wasteland,” is the product of me trying to look at our current world and find the holiness in the everyday. This book can be found at https://www.owlcanyonpress.com/product-page/american-wasteland-stories-by-alexander-shalom-joseph
How did you come to be in Boulder? Tell us about your journey here, and your Jewish journey.
I was born and raised in Gilpin County, about forty minutes West into the mountains from Boulder. My mother is Jewish and works as a high school teacher and my father is Buddhist and works as a travel agent. While growing up in a middle to lower class, White, Christian area, being Jewish was always something that I felt alone in.
I think my Jewish journey really started when I heard my first holocaust. I was in 8th grade and a kid in my class who knew I was Jewish told me this awful joke and I am not exactly sure why or how, but from that point on being Jewish and being proud of that part of me has been very important to me.
I have not had the traditional hebrew school, bar mitzvah Jewish experience because of where I was raised, I have mainly found Jewish community through my family and through Jewish Authors. Around the time of that awful joke, I read “Night” by Elie Wiesel and that was the beginning of really resonating with Judaism and Jewish Authors for me.
While I was finishing my first Master’s at Naropa, I heard this Jacques Derrida quote about claiming your community and in turn being claimed by that community and with that in mind I just leaned into identifying myself as a Jewish American author.
Since then I have in turn felt supported and held by the Jewish Community both in writing and as a whole and I have been able to engage with a lot of likeminded people because of this. I am really grateful to be able to be part of such ancient and wonderful culture and I hope I can be a good representative for our tribe.
Are there any practices or activities or coping strategies that you took on during the pandemic that you think you may continue when it’s done?
During the pandemic, throughout all of the strife and fear and political upheaval, I turned towards gratitude and towards the strength of my ancestors to get me through. Before bed each night, in some sort of prayer I suppose, I speak to things I am grateful for.
When I have been scared about what is ongoing in society and so on, I have reminded myself of what we as Jews have endured for the last 5,000 years and through that I have been given the strength to keep going.
If we have survived genocide after exile after genocide and we are still here, I can continue to move forward and survive too. So both the gratitude and leaning on the strength and bravery of my ancestors are both things which I will continue to do indefinitely and in some ways I am grateful for the pandemic for helping me to feel these things.
Hamantaschen or Latkes?
Latkes most certainly. This is one part of Jewish culture that rural living did not exclude me from. In the past decade much of my mom’s family has moved here, including my beloved grandmother, who has been a great source of Jewish wisdom and care for me. Now that we have so much of our family here, we have started to have Latkes Parties during which we have a sort of Jewish feast. Now when I think of Latkes I think of family, of warmth and love and light and to me that is exactly what the core of Judaism is about.