Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Bone-Deep: Andrew Tertes

As a boy, writer Andrew Tertes had a powerful connection to nature. “Our backyard bordered a woods-and-wetlands area, where my brothers, friends, and I adventured,” he recalls. Given the strength of this feeling, it’s not surprising that he was drawn to Native American culture and its “joyful practice of conservation and stewardship.” Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home, he didn’t have the words for these concepts, only felt “a resonance in my bones [that] became translated into a fantasy about peoples I didn’t really know.” At eight, he was already writing stories about Indians “who lived ‘back then.’ It was a time I yearned for but which I believed was untouchable.” But he had an equally strong sense of his Jewishness and “was proud of being different.”

  All these richly-colored threads come together in Tertes’s recently released novel, Jacob’s Return (put out by Sapphire Ink Press, which he and his wife, Shoshana Gugenheim, started). The hero, Jacob Goldman is, in many ways, his creator’s alter ego – a Jewish man whose “warm and mysterious relationship [with God] had become cold and distant during his adolescence, only to become more rigid and devoid of feeling and possibility as he grew up.” Married to Sheila, a strong-willed Native American woman very much in tune with her own heritage, Jacob reflects that “[t]here had always been something about her [Sheila’s] Native American ceremonies that was familiar to his bones, even though he stayed at arm’s length.” It is an archetypal journey: like Jacob in the Old Testament, he has to wrestle with “Spirit and claim [his] birthright” and to create new meaning for himself by somehow bringing their two worlds together.

 In his bones. That phrase comes up time and again in Tertes’s writing and during the interview itself. And he does not use it lightly. He, too, has done his share of wrestling with his heritage. “In high school, my friends and I considered ourselves existentialists after diving into Camus,” recalls the writer, who now lives in Israel with his wife and son. That was the beginning of a long through-the-looking-glass journey that took him through T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” Western philosophy courses at Tufts University, Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and a personal transformation seminar.

 But in the midst of all this, he was aware that there was some part of himself that he had to retrieve. “I re-connected with my childhood love of dancing and fostering a relationship with spirit,” Tertes explains eagerly. “What I’d called God as a child. Prayer began for me as a way to integrate my being and to know my source. So did ventures into the hills, mountains, forests, and coastal regions of Northern California. Spending time camping as an adult reminded me of how vital my connection was to the natural world as a boy….It took me years to re-acquaint myself with nature, re-developing communication and intuition with that which wasn’t man-made or only thought-based.”

He began writing Jacob’s Return. He wanted – needed – to find out more about his roots “but not through the Conservative channel in which I grew up.” By this time, he was living in Oakland, California. He began exploring the ways in which early Jewish culture (which had been land-based and largely nomadic) and Native American culture resembled each other. He took part in sweat lodges. And in March 2000, he met with Clarence Atwell, chief of the Tachi Yokuts, an active tribe in the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California. The upshot of that meeting – which Tertes showed up at carrying both a mezzuzah and some tobacco he’d grown himself – was a four-day vision quest that led him to a deeper understanding of both God and his grandfather’s world. Curiously enough, at the end of it all, he was “given a wool poncho by a man named Lucky, half-Jewish and half-Indian.” Talk about the universe giving you a sign….

 But there’s another part to Tertes’s story, and it goes quite a bit further back. It also deals with someone that he never actually met. In 1988, he read Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and was completely blown away by it. Asher, growing up in Brooklyn’s Hasidic community during the 1950s, is deeply artistic; his gift puts him at odds with that community since many Hasidim see art as a violation of the Old Testament injunction against the making of graven images. Potok himself was also an artist and a rabbi, and the novel deals with Asher’s struggle to reconcile his artistic yearnings with his religious upbringing.

 The book made it possible for Tertes to enter the Hasidic world and enjoy “the emotional and spiritual depth it offered to Asher, even while he searched his soul and found his individual voice, something which was against the grain in that tradition.” Potok became a major influence in his own writing despite the response of one teacher who scoffed, “He’s not a writer, he’s a storyteller.” But Tertes had found a writerly voice that spoke to him, and he didn’t back down. He even hoped to some day meet with Potok and remembers with painful clarity that July day in 2002 when a friend told him that the older novelist had died: “I walked outside to an oak tree and sobbed. Later that day, I wrote a poem, ‘Cadmium Red.’”

 The poem, which he was later able to share with Potok’s daughter and widow, conveys a strong sense of kinship:

Your tales unearth
  my rich past
  lichen to stone
  moss to earth
  Sholom Aleichem, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav
  the forever heart of holy words
  Scribe and parchment….

  You guided me
  with the blade of light I offered myself.

But the exploration of his Jewish roots doesn’t stop there. Tertes is currently working on a novel about Bernard Blumberg, a widower and secular Jew who is enraptured by 19th-century New England writers. Blumberg, a retired tailor, begins to have visions, “all of which come to him in what feels like the ‘texture’ of fabric, the language he knows best. He is moved to prepare himself for what seems to be the receiving of prophecy. As he is not a man of words, he is directed to busy his heart and hands with the message that he receives.”

 More threads, both literal and figurative. Here, too, the writer’s earnestness comes through, reminding me of that line from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s that has somehow never lost its freshness despite the many times it has been quoted: “One sees clearly only with the heart.” If that is indeed true, then Tertes has 20-20 vision.

Related links:-- http://www.AndrewTertes.com
 -- http://www.SapphireInkPress.com

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