David Bezmozgis’ Adventures in the Free World

On the 15th of November, 2012, The Department of Jewish Studies, in collaboration with the Department of English, were happy to host David Bezmozgis for a fascinating discussion of his novel, The Free World. Bezmozgis is an award-winning writer and The Free World, which came out in 2011, is his first novel. He immigrated to Canada from the Soviet Union when he was six and much of his writing (including this novel) revolves around the experience of Soviet Jewish immigrants.

Bezmozgis, himself a McGill alumnus, spoke freely and casually, inviting the attendees to ask questions. His writing is influenced both by Jewish-American writers like Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and Saul Bellow, and by Jewish-Canadian writers to which he was introduced during his undergraduate studies: Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, and A.M. Klein.

Bezmozgis lecturing (Photo: Eric Caplan)

The Free World, Bezmozgis explained, offered him a chance to experiment in ways which he had not done previously: writing in the third person, and writing from the point of view of women and adults, and this flux of perspectives helped him depict the chaos and uncertainty of leaving the Soviet Union. The novel itself is set in Rome in 1978, a year of world-wide political turmoil, and was written in the course of a grueling seven years, during which Bezmozgis attempted to immerse himself in the world of his characters, through geography, language, and old letters. In fact, Bezmozgis said, the Russian language even pervaded his style of writing in the novel, affecting his diction and syntax in order to manufacture the appropriate atmosphere.

One particularly fascinating topic raised by Bezmozgis was his use of actual letters written in Yiddish (translated by our own Esther Frank) and sent from the front during the Second World War, one of which was actually included in the novel.

When questions arose, Bezmozgis seemed thrilled to engage with the audience, who asked him about various elements of his writing process. He discussed how Judaism pervaded his writing not only because of his own heritage and literary influences, but because his cast of characters (all Jewish save one) were inevitably touched by their Jewish identity by virtue of living in a state which discriminated against Jews. He also broached the topic of the purpose of his writing, citing empathy as the purpose of all art in his opinion.

All in all, the Bezmozgis lecture was intriguing and met with a very engaged audience, happy to ask questions and at times even debate with the writer, who proved a fascinating speaker. We would like to once again thank him for coming and wish him good luck.

– Elay Kornecki

Interview with Jascha Nemtsov

Jascha Nemtsov is a world-renowned pianist and scholar of European Jewish and Russian composers from the inter-war period. Through his performances in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, on more than 26 CDs, and in many academic works, Jascha has brought the forgotten works of these persecuted composers to the world’s attention. Tonight, he will present “In the Exile: A Concert of Jewish Music,” in McGill’s Redpath Hall. He spoke with me before the performance about why these composers are of particular historical and musical significance, and what drew his interest to them in the first place.


Interview with Dr. Yuval Sinai

On September 19th, Dr. Yuval Sinai – director of the Centre for Practical Application of Jewish Law in Israel – delivered a lecture on the history of pluralism in the Jewish legal tradition and the contemporary role of Jewish law in a multicultural society. After the lecture, sponsored by the Department of Jewish Studies and hosted by the Faculty of Law, Dr. Sinai spoke with Jewish Studies student Ricky Kreitner about the occasional tensions between Jewish law and secular law, and offered his own opinions as to how reconciliation of the two can best be achieved.

You showed the many examples in the Jewish canon of legal pluralism. But would you consider those exceptions or are they indicative of the general character of the Jewish legal tradition?

Legal pluralism is one of the central features of Jewish law. I think I illustrated it very interestingly by the way that enterprises of codification did not exist, because the Jewish people didn’t want one clear-cut situation. The Shulchan Aruch [the most authoritative Jewish legal code, written in Israel in 1563] has all different opinions, Ashkenazi and Sephardic opinions, and it’s flexible. You can find any opinion to reflect your tradition, and only because of its flexibility, because of its legal pluralism and multicultural character. This is why it was accepted.

You mentioned some 19th century Orthodox rabbis who were reluctant to incorporate Jewish law into state law because they were so intent on pluralism, and they thought that crystallizing the law in such a way would betray that commitment. Is there any continuation of that tradition today within the Orthodox community?

This is a fascinating question, and maybe I could give another lecture about that. The Haredic world – the ultra-Orthodox world – they’re more in favor of the decentralized model for incorporating Jewish law into Israel law. They traditionally want to live their lives the way they live in their community, and they’re not concerned about the state of Israel anyway – they look at that as a secular state, not a religious state. On the other hand, the religious Zionist Orthodox usually look at the institutes of Jewish law, and the great rabbis of the religious Orthodox in Israel, they look at the state and see a religious dimension for the state of Israel, and therefore it’s important that the institutions reflect Jewish law.


Video from Klez Kanada Student Presentations

From August 22nd-28th, Klez Kanada hosted their 16th annual festival devoted to Jewish culture and the arts. Set in the beautiful Laurentian mountains, the festival hosts musical, comedic, and dance performances, and a course on Jewish music co-hosted by the McGill Department of Jewish Studies.

Below is a video of the student presentations from that course.


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