Week Forty-Three: “The Golem of Chelm” (traditional) and “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét.


“The Golem of Chelm” (traditional, video)


Good morning!
This week we’re mixing storytelling forms, and we’re going to begin today with an eleven-minute animation.

We’ve studied a number of legends, fairy and folk tales . . .

Have you ever heard the story of the Golem? This particular Golem is The Golem of Rabbi Elijah; also known as the Golem of Chelm.

Listen as the story’s told, and let us know what you think.


For another Golem story everyone will enjoy, try Golem by David Wisniewski.

Golem is a 1996 picture book. With illustrations made of cut-paper collages, it is Wisniewski’s retelling of the Jewish folktale of the Golem (of Prague, this time, not Chelm) with a one-page background at the end.



This picture book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997


The story is set in year 1580, and the Jews are being persecuted. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the town rabbi, can think of nothing more than creating a being out of mud and bringing it to life, using the holy name of God, to protect them. Once the Golem stops the persecution, Rabbi Loew erases the letters on the Golem’s head, making the Golem “sleep the dreamless sleep of clay”. The ending is ambiguous, ending with the words: “But many say he could awaken. Perhaps when the desperate need for justice is united with holy purpose, Golem will come to life once more.”


The book won the Caldecott Medal in 1997


. . .for movie fans . . .

Check out this old silent film:

The Golem (1920) by Paul Wegener


The 1920 silent film classic, The Golem

This film stars Wegener as the golem. The film was the third of three films that Wegener made featuring the golem, the other two being The Golem (1915) and the short comedy The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), in which Wegener dons the Golem make-up in order to frighten a young lady he is infatuated with. The Golem: How He Came into the World is a prequel to The Golem from 1915 and is the best known of the series, largely because it is the only one of the three films that has not been lost. One of the early horror films, the film was sensational upon its release and has left a lasting legacy within the film industry,[citation needed] alongside another early German expressionist horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).¹


“By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét



Painting, “By the Waters of Babylon,” Arthur Hacker, 1858-1919.



Looking for a second optional reading to pair with “The Golem of Chelm?”

John, the son of a priest, is one of the hill people. What will happen when he sets out on a spiritual quest to the forbidden place of the gods? Let’s find out in this often-anthologized science fiction story.

Here is “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét.

How would you compare or contrast this to the tale of Rabbi Elijah’s Golem? Let us know!

HERE is Benét’s story



Image result for stephen vincent benet


Why do you suppose Stephen Vincent Benét chose this title for his short story?

Benét wrote the story in response to the April 25, 1937 bombing of Guernica, in which Fascist military forces destroyed the majority of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.[5] This story took place before the public knowledge of nuclear weapons, but Benét’s description of “The Great Burning” is similar to later descriptions of the effects of the atomic bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. His “deadly mist” and “fire falling from the sky” seem eerily prescient of the descriptions of the aftermath of nuclear blasts. However, the “deadly mist” may also be a reference to chemical weapons in World War I, particularly mustard gas, a feared weapon of war that Benét’s generation was very familiar with. The story was written in 1937, two years before the Manhattan Project started, and eight years before there was widespread public knowledge of the project.

Elements of the plot and themes of By the Waters of Babylon appear in the 1970 feature film Beneath the Planet of the Apes.

The psalm is a hymn expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 607 BCE. The rivers of Babylon are the Euphrates river, its tributaries, and the Tigris river. In its whole form of nine verses, the psalm reflects the yearning for Jerusalem as well as hatred for the Holy City’s enemies with sometimes violent imagery. Rabbinical sources attributed the poem to the prophet Jeremiah,[1] and the Septuagint version of the psalm bears the superscription: “For David. By Jeremias, in the Captivity.”[2]

  1. By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
  2. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
  3. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
  4. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
  5. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
  6. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
  7. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
  8. O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
  9. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

The early lines of the psalm describe the sadness of the Israelites in exile, weeping and hanging their harps on trees. Asked to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, they refuse. The speaker turns into self-exhortation to remember Jerusalem: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” (אִם-אֶשְׁכָּחֵךְ יְרוּשָׁלִָם–תִּשְׁכַּח יְמִינִי). The psalm ends with prophetic predictions of violent revenge.



 . . .A bit about Stephen Vincent Benét . . .



Stephen Vincent Benét (July 22, 1898 – March 13, 1943) was an American poet, short story writer, and novelist. He is best known for his book-length narrative poem of the American Civil War John Brown’s Body (1928), for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1929, and for the short stories “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1936) and “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937). In 2009, The Library of America selected Benét’s story “The King of the Cats” (1929) for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Fantastic Tales edited by Peter Straub.








Week Forty-Two: “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick and “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel




“The Shawl” Cynthia Ozick


Stella, cold, cold, the coldness of hell.”


Thus begins Cynthia Ozick’s short (just five pages) yet riveting story, “The Shawl.”

“Ozick wrote it, she says, in a way she has never written anything, before or since. “I’m not a mystic, I don’t believe in any of that. I’ve been on the side of rationalism. I had an experience, just the first five pages – I hate to say it, it’s the kind of absurd thing that I mock – that I wasn’t writing it, that it was dictated. Just for those five pages.”

For International Holocaust Remembrance Day. I hope you will consider reading Ozick’s award-winning short story, which was chosen for The Big Read by The National Endowment for the Arts.

At less than 2000 words, here is “The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick.


Should you prefer to hear the story read aloud, check out this instalment of Yiddish Story Time, introduced by Leonard Nimoy:



Major Characters in the Book

Rosa Lublin
As a young woman, Rosa is raped by a German soldier, confined in the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent to a Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland with her niece, Stella, and her infant daughter, Magda. Almost four decades later, Rosa lives in Miami, haunted by the memory of her daughter’s death. “Rosa Lublin, a madwoman and a scavenger, gave up her store—she smashed it up herself—and moved to Miami. It was a mad thing to do. … Her niece in New York sent her money and she lived among the elderly, in a dark hole, a single room in a ‘hotel.'”

Teenage Stella’s theft of the shawl leads to her cousin Magda’s death. As an adult, Stella provides Rosa with financial support, but she cannot understand her aunt’s inability to let go of the past. “Stella liked everything from Rosa’s junkshop, everything used, old, lacy with other people’s history.”

A baby hidden in her mother’s shawl, Magda survives infancy in a concentration camp in Nazi German-occupied Poland but is murdered by a guard at fifteen months old.
“The face, very round, a pocket mirror of a face: but it was not Rosa’s bleak complexion, dark like cholera, it was another kind of face altogether, eyes blue as air, smooth feathers of hair nearly as yellow as the Star sewn into Rosa’s coat. You could think she was one of their babies.”

Simon Persky
A retiree whose wife is hospitalized in a mental institution, Simon is a comic character in a tragic situation. His persistent kindness begins to break through some of Rosa’s barriers. “Two whole long rows of glinting dentures smiled at her; he was proud to be a flirt.”

How The Shawl Came to Be Written

The Shawl began with a line, one sentence in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. This one sentence told of a real event, about a baby being thrown against an electrified fence. And that stayed with me and stayed with me, and that was the very explicit origin of The Shawl.

“It began with those very short five pages. We read now and again that a person sits down to write and there’s a sense that some mystical hand is guiding you and you’re not writing out of yourself. I think reasonably, if you’re a rational person, you can’t accept that. But I did have the sense—I did this one time in my life—that I was suddenly extraordinarily fluent, and I’m never fluent. I wrote those five pages as if I heard a voice. In a sense, I have no entitlement to this part because it’s an experience in a death camp. I was not there. I did not experience it.”

“I wrote the second half because I wanted to know what happened to Rosa afterward. I was curious to enter the mind of such an unhappy, traumatized person and see how that person would cope with the time afterward—rescued, saved, safe, and yet not rescued, not safe, not normal, abnormal.”

—Excerpted from Cynthia Ozick’s interview with former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia¹


. . .A bit about Cynthia Ozick . . .



Cynthia Ozick

Cynthia Ozick, (born April 17, 1928, New York, N.Y., U.S.), American novelist, short-story writer, essayist, and intellectual whose works seek to define the challenge of remaining Jewish in contemporary American life. By delving into the oldest religious sources of Judaism, Ozick explored much new territory.


Ozick received a B.A. in English in 1949 from New York University and an M.A. in 1950 from Ohio State University. Her first novel, Trust (1966), is the story of a woman’s rejection of her wealthy American Jewish family and her search for her renegade father in Europe. It has echoes of Henry James in its juxtaposition of American and European settings. In subsequent books, such as Bloodshed and Three Novellas (1976), Ozick struggled with the idea that the creation of art (a pagan activity) is in direct opposition to principles of Judaism, which forbids the creation of idols. The psychological aftermath of the Holocaust is another theme of her work, especially in Levitation: Five Fictions (1982) and the novels The Cannibal Galaxy (1983) and The Shawl (1989). She often drew upon traditional Jewish mysticism to expand upon her themes. One of her recurring characters is Ruth Puttermesser. In 1997 Ozick published The Puttermesser Papers, a short novel consisting of narratives and false memories of the aging Puttermesser, who in one story brings a female golem to life in order to save New York City, with disastrous results.


Ozick’s later works turn away from the theme of the sacred and the profane. Her novel The Messiah of Stockholm (1987) is, in part, a meditation on the nature of writing. Heir to the Glimmering World (2004; also published as The Bear Boy) tells the story of a young woman hired as a nanny in the home of two Jewish-German academics exiled to New York City in the 1930s. Diction: A Quartet, a collection of four short stories, was published in 2008.


Many of Ozick’s essays have been collected in Art & Ardor (1983), Metaphor & Memory (1989), Fame & Folly (1996), Quarrel & Quandary (2000), and The Din in the Head (2006).




“The Watch” by Eli Wiesel


Can we return to the past? Get beyond the past?

When we survive horror, does time heal us?


Eli Wiesel interviewed by Oprah Winfrey

If you would like a second optional piece to pair with Ozick’s “The Shawl,”  we suggest “The Watch,” by Elie Wiesel.

The shawl had great symbolism in Ozick’s tale. What will the watch represent, in Wiesel’s?


HERE is “The Watch” by Eli Wiesel.


  1. What sort of feelings does the protagonist have towards the people of the town in the beginning of the story? The end of the story?
  2. What does the watch symbolize, if anything?



. . .A bit about Eli Wiesel . . .

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, which is now part of Romania. He was fifteen years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister perished, his two older sisters survived. Elie and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died shortly before the camp was liberated in April 1945. elie-wiesel

After the war, Elie Wiesel studied in Paris and later became a journalist. During an interview with the distinguished French writer, Francois Mauriac, he was persuaded to write about his experiences in the death camps. The result was his internationally acclaimed memoir, Night (La Nuit), which has since been translated into more than thirty languages.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter appointed Elie Wiesel as Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He is President of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization he and his wife created to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice. Elie Wiesel has received more than 100 honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning.

A devoted supporter of Israel, Elie Wiesel has also defended the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia. For more than fifteen years, Elie and his wife Marion have been especially devoted to the cause of Ethiopian-born Israeli youth through the Foundation’s Beit Tzipora Centers for Study and Enrichment.

Teaching has always been central to Elie Wiesel’s work. Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also holds the title of University Professor. He is a member of the Faculty in the Department of Religion as well as the Department of Philosophy. Previously, he served as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76) and the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83).

Elie Wiesel is the author of more than sixty books of fiction and non-fiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem (Prix Médicis winner), The Testament (Prix Livre Inter winner), The Fifth Son (winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris), two volumes of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full, and most recently The Sonderberg Case.

For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and soon after, Marion and Elie Wiesel established The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016 in Manhattan.²









¹ The Big Read, NEA website

² The Eli Wiesel Foundation




Week Forty-One: “I Have a Dream” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.


“I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr.


I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.  -Martin Luther King, Jr.


Few speeches have been as often quoted or anthologized as Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We would be remiss, in the study of the best short form literature available, if we didn’t include it on our reading list.

Happy Martin Luther King Day! Have you ever read the entire speech? This week we’ll be looking at speeches, letters and essays related to civil rights. Please share your thoughts with our group!

You can find King’s speech HERE.

“Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.



A recreation of King’s Jail Cell


If you found King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech meaningful, here is an OPTIONAL second Wednesday piece:

King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

‘The Birmingham campaign began on April 3, 1963, with coordinated marches and sit-ins against racism and racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. The nonviolent campaign was coordinated by the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) and King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing.” Leaders of the campaign announced they would disobey the ruling. On April 12, King was roughly arrested with SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy, ACMHR and SCLC official Fred Shuttlesworth and other marchers, while thousands of African Americans dressed for Good Friday looked on.


You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “An unjust law is no law at all.”


King was met with unusually harsh conditions in the Birmingham jail. An ally smuggled in a newspaper from April 12, which contained “A Call for Unity”: a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen against King and his methods.

The letter provoked King, and he began to write a response on the newspaper itself. King writes in Why We Can’t Wait:

“Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trustee, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.” (Wikipedia)


for discussion: what elements of rhetoric does Martin Luther King Jr. use in his writing to persuade and excite the listener?


For Further Study . . .

Listen to “The Idea of Ancestry” by the poet Etheridge Knight, written from his jail cell in 1968.

The Idea of Ancestry

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.                          -Etheridge Knight





And . . .check out The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change.

. . .A bit about Martin Luther King, Jr. . . .




Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 through 1968. He is best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using the tactics of nonviolence and civil disobedience based on his Christian beliefs and inspired by the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi.


King became a civil rights activist early in his career. He led the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, serving as its first president. With the SCLC, he led an unsuccessful 1962 struggle against segregation in Albany, Georgia, and helped organize the nonviolent 1963 protests in Birmingham, Alabama. He also helped to organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.


King received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolent resistance. ] In 1965, he helped to organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the following year he and the SCLC took the movement north to Chicago to work on segregated housing. In the final years of his life, he expanded his focus to include opposition towards poverty and the Vietnam War, alienating many of his liberal allies with a 1967 speech titled “Beyond Vietnam”.


In 1968, King was planning a national occupation of Washington, D.C., to be called the Poor People’s Campaign, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4 in Memphis, Tennessee. King’s death was followed by riots in many U.S. cities. Ray, who fled the country, was arrested two months later at London Heathrow Airport. Ray was sentenced to 99 years in prison for King’s murder, and died in 1998 from hepatitis while serving his sentence.


King was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in numerous cities and states beginning in 1971, and as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986. Hundreds of streets in the U.S. have been renamed in his honor, and a county in Washington State was also rededicated for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011.¹



¹Source: Wikipedia


Week Thirty Four: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates


Harper Perennial edition, 2007

“Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right . . .”

Thus begins “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” — a classic and often-anthologized short story by Joyce Carol Oates.

Is this fable? Allegory? Urban Legend? All three? Let us know your thoughts

Read Oates’ story HERE.

“The story first appeared in the Fall 1966 edition of Epoch magazine. It was inspired by four Tucson, Arizona murders committed by Charles Schmid, which were profiled in Life magazine in an article written by Don Moser on March 4, 1966.

Considerable academic analysis has been written about the story, with scholars divided on whether it is intended to be taken literally or as allegory. Several writers focus on the series of numbers written on Friend’s car, which he indicates are a code of some sort, but which is never explained:

“‘Now, these numbers are a secret code, honey,’ Arnold Friend explained. He read off the numbers 33, 19, 17 and raised his eyebrows at her to see what she thought of that, but she didn’t think much of it.” (p. 41)

Literary scholars have interpreted this series of numbers as different Biblical references, as an underlining of Friend’s sexual deviancy, or as a reference to the ages of Friend and his victims.

The narrative has also been viewed as an allegory for initiation into sexual adulthood,[5] an encounter with the devil, a critique of modern youth’s obsession with sexual themes in popular music, or as a dream sequence.”¹

Did you know that “Where Are You Going…” is dedicated Bob Dylan?

Says Oates:

“Baby Blue” didn’t directly influence my short story, which was inspired by a Life magazine article about a serial killer in Tucson, Ariz., but the song’s soul and poetic rhythm were very seductive.

I loved the song’s surreal quality and Dylan’s couplets: “The vagabond who’s rapping at your door / Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.” Or “Strike another match, go start anew,” which suggests renewal and beginning again, only to resolve with the blunt “And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

The beauty of the song is that you can never quite comprehend it. We know only that something is over: “The lover who just walked out your door / Has taken all his blankets from the floor / The carpet, too, is moving under you.” A powerful evocation of losing control, of losing everything.”²

. . .For further study . . .

Check out Celestial Timepiece, a brilliant website devoted to all things Joyce Carol Oates.

  . . .A bit about Joyce Carol Oates . . .


Photograph from the New York Times

Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including We Were the Mulvaneys; Blonde, which was nominated for the National Book Award; and the New York Times bestseller The Accursed. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. (Harper Collins)

Bonus Clip: Joyce Carol Oates at home:

¹ Wikipedia

²Celestial Timepiece (an authorized Joyce Carol Oates Website)



Week Twenty Nine: “A Hunger Artist” and “Before the Law” by Franz Kafka


Kafka’s Complete Stories, edited by John Updike

This week let’s take an opportunity to discuss absurdity, the nature of performance, and all things “Kafka-esque!”
“A Hunger Artist” (German: “Ein Hungerkünstler”) is a short story by Franz Kafka first published in Die neue Rundschau in 1922.
It’s one of Kafka’s most anthologized short stories. Enjoy reading here as a PDF, or listen to a wonderful performance of the tale by actress and “diseuse,” Lotte Lenya (the wife of Kurt Weill and “Jenny” in The Three-Penny Opera.)

Let’s talk about Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist!”

Here’s some food for thought: How does Kafka make use of the parable storytelling form?


The Frugal Repast, Pablo Picasso, Copper lithograph, 1904.

“I spent my first week’s wages on having Kafka’s three stories– The Metamorphosis, The Judgement, and The Stoker– bound in a dark brown leather volume, with the name Franz Kafka elegantly tooled in gold lettering.
The book lay in the briefcase on my knee …Then I proudly took the volume out of the case and gave it across the desk to Kafka.

“What is this?” he asked in astonishment.
“It is my first week’s wages.”
“Isn’t that a waste?”
Kafka’s eyelid’s fluttered. His lips were sharply drawn in. For a few seconds he contemplated the name in gold lettering, hastily thumbed through the pages of the book – and – with obvious embarrassment– placed it before me on the desk. I was about to ask why the book offended him, when he began to cough.
…You overrate me. Your trust oppresses me.”

He sat himself at his desk and said, with his hands to his temples: “I am no burning bush. I am not a flame.”

—Gustav Janouch, Conversations with Kafka.


Parable: a simple story told to convey or represent a basic moral truth or religious principle; in literature to illustrate an aspect of the human condition.

Fable: a short story that tells a moral truth, often using animals as characters.




  • 1. a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature that sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.


Learn more about Surrealism, including information on Kafka, Dali, Man Ray and others HERE.

Looking for a short pairing to “A Hunger Artist?”

If so, here is “Before the Law” by Franz Kafka.

. . .A bit about Franz Kafka . . .

Franz Kafka (3 July 1883 – 3 June 1924) was a German-language novelist and short story writer, widely regarded as one of the major figures of 20th-century literature. His work, which fuses elements of realism and the fantastic, typically features isolated protagonists faced by bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible social-bureaucratic powers, and has been interpreted as exploring themes of alienation, existential anxiety, guilt, and absurdity. His best known works include “Die Verwandlung” (“The Metamorphosis”), Der Process (The Trial), and Das Schloss (The Castle). The term Kafkaesque has entered the English language to describe situations like those in his writing.

Kafka was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today part of the Czech Republic. He trained as a lawyer, and after completing his legal education he was employed with an insurance company, forcing him to relegate writing to his spare time. Over the course of his life, Kafka wrote hundreds of letters to family and close friends, including his father, with whom he had a strained and formal relationship. He became engaged to several women but never married.

He died in 1924 at the age of 40 from tuberculosis.

Few of Kafka’s works were published during his lifetime: the story collections Betrachtung (Contemplation) and Ein Landarzt (A Country Doctor), and individual stories (such as “Die Verwandlung”) were published in literary magazines but received little public attention. Kafka’s unfinished works, including his novels Der Process, Das Schloss and Amerika (also known as Der Verschollene, The Man Who Disappeared), were ordered by Kafka to be destroyed by his friend Max Brod, who nonetheless ignored his friend’s direction and published them after Kafka’s death. His work went on to influence a vast range of writers, critics, artists, and philosophers during the 20th century.

Looking for more?  Check out this piece from The Atlantic on what it means to be “Kafka-esque.”



Week Twenty Eight: “Shooting an Elephant” and “Why I Write” by George Orwell




“Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell

Eric A. Blair, better known as George Orwell, is today best known for his last two novels, the anti-totalitarian works Animal Farm and 1984. He was also an accomplished and experienced essayist, writing on topics as diverse as anti-Semitism in England, Rudyard Kipling, Salvador Dali, and nationalism.¹
Among his most powerful essays is the 1931 autobiographical essay “Shooting an Elephant,” which Orwell based on his experience as a police officer in colonial Burma.
It’s often found in “Best of” anthologies, and can be read on several different levels.
Please share your observations after reading Orwell’s essay- we’d love to hear from you

You can read Orwell’s essay here.

A point for discussion one might find worthwhile is the difference between connotation and denotation in “Shooting an Elephant.”

Connotation and Denotation

Denotative meanings are generally the literal meaning of the word, while connotative meanings are the “coloring” attached to words beyond their literal meaning. For example, the “army of people” Orwell refers to in his essay bring to mind not only a large group of people, but also a military and oppositional force. Explain the connotative and denotative meanings of the following words or phrases using this organizational chart.²

Another point for discussion . . . saving face

What is the process of saving face? Read and discuss this passage from Orwell’s essay:

It was perfectly clear to me what I ought to do. I ought to walk up to within, say, twenty-five yards of the elephant and test his behavior. If he charged, I could shoot; if he took no notice of me, it would be safe to leave him until the mahout came back. But also I knew that I was going to do no such thing. I was a poor shot with a rifle and the ground was soft mud into which one would sink at every step. If the elephant charged and I missed him, I should have about as much chance as a toad under a steam-roller. But even then I was not thinking particularly of my own skin, only the watchful yellow faces behind. For at that moment, with the crowd watching me, I was not afraid in the ordinary sense, as I would have been if I had been alone … The sole thought in my mind was that if anything went wrong those two thousand Burmans would see me pursued, caught, trampled on and reduced to a grinning corpse like that Indian up the hill. And if that happened it was quite probably that some of them would laugh. That would never do.


“Why I Write” by George Orwell




Looking for a reading pairing for our week of Orwell? Have a look at his essay, “Why I Write.”




On video . . .


Here’s a worthwhile Book TV interview about Orwell with astute literary critic Christopher Hitchens and author/editor George Packer.




For Further Reading:





George Packer’s seminal collections of Orwell’s essays


George Orwell was first and foremost an essayist, producing throughout his life an extraordinary array of short nonfiction that reflected–and illuminated–the fraught times in which he lived. “As soon as he began to write something,” comments George Packer in his foreword, “it was as natural for Orwell to propose, generalize, qualify, argue, judge–in short, to think–as it was for Yeats to versify or Dickens to invent.”

Facing Unpleasant Facts charts Orwell’s development as a master of the narrative-essay form and unites such classics as “Shooting an Elephant” with lesser-known journalism and passages from his wartime diary. Whether detailing the horrors of Orwell’s boyhood in an English boarding school or bringing to life the sights, sounds, and smells of the Spanish Civil War, these essays weave together the personal and the political in an unmistakable style that is at once plainspoken and brilliantly complex.


As a critic, George Orwell cast a wide net. Equally at home discussing Charles Dickens and Charlie Chaplin, he moved back and forth across the porous borders between essay and journalism, high art and low. A frequent commentator on literature, language, film, and drama throughout his career, Orwell turned increasingly to the critical essay in the 1940s, when his most important experiences were behind him and some of his most incisive writing lay ahead. All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary. With masterpieces such as “Politics and the English Language” and “Rudyard Kipling” and gems such as “Good Bad Books,” here is an unrivaled education in, as George Packer puts it, “how to be interesting, line after line.”³


. . .A bit about George Orwell . . .



Eric Arthur Blair  (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950),better known by his pen name George Orwell, was an English novelist, essayist, journalist, and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and outspoken support of democratic socialism.

Orwell wrote literary criticism, poetry, fiction, and polemical journalism. He is best known for the allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945) and the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). His non-fiction works, including The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), documenting his experience of working class life in the north of England, and Homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, are widely acclaimed, as are his essays on politics, literature, language, and culture. In 2008, The Times ranked him second on a list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945”.

Orwell’s work continues to influence popular and political culture, and the term Orwellian – descriptive of totalitarian or authoritarian social practices – has entered the language together with many of his neologisms, including Big Brother, Thought Police, Room 101, memory hole, newspeak, doublethink, proles, unperson, and thoughtcrime.


¹From the National Endowment for the Humanities.


³ Amazon.Com


Week Twenty One: Readings for the 4th of July


The faces of freedom: original daguerreotypes introduce us to veterans of The American Revolutionary War




George Fishley, a soldier in the Continental Army, known as “The Last of the Cocked Hats”


To begin a study of primary source materials of the American revolutionary War, check out these incredible daguerreotypes compiled by Utah-based journalist Joe Baumam, who spent three decades researching and compiling images of American Revolutionary War veterans.

Digging through a myriad of sources – 18th and 19th century battle accounts, muster rolls, genealogical records, pension files, letters, period newspapers, town and county histories – he was able to flesh out the stories of these veterans.

See the faces of the war veterans, here.



The “rough draft” and crossed out paragraph of The Declaration of Independence




Specific paragraphs on abolishing slavery were crossed out, primarily at the request from delegates who had dealings in the slave trade


This week we’ll be looking at some source materials related to United States independence and the American Revolutionary War.


Did you know . . .


. . .that there was an original draft of the Declaration of Independence?

In a letter to Timothy Pickering, dated 1822, John Adams, who had been an eyewitness, recollects the crossed-out paragraph in this famous document.

Find out what was crossed out, based on Adams letter. What would have been different, had the paragraph remained?

John Adams describes the writing of the Declaration of Independence, here.

This copy of the Declaration of Independence is significant not only for its historical importance, but also for the language it contains, which is different from the version that was eventually ratified on July 4, 1776. Notably, Jefferson’s copy includes a lengthy condemnation of the slave trade:


“he [the king of Great Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”


But before the Declaration of Independence was ratified, this passage was removed; its excision was intended primarily to appease the delegates from Georgia and South Carolina.

It’s incredible to think that the so-oft quoted Declaration of Independence was actually written by a 33-year old who did not want the job; some of the document’s most eloquent and needed passages about freedom were removed purely to protect economic prosperity, in a war which was supposedly all about freedom from oppression.



Next up: meet Mary Katharine Goddard, female publisher!




Check out this link to a great story from The Washington Post:

Mary Katharine Goddard not only got the assignment from congress to publish official copies of The Declaration of Independence; “She was also quietly named the first female postmaster in the colonies in 1775, running the busy and crucial Baltimore Post Office as well as a bookstore, print shop and newspaper.”¹

Read Goddard’s story, here!




Then read a first-person eyewitness account of a continental army soldier who was at Valley Forge!



You’re looking at The Blue Book, which  remained the official guide to military training and maneuvers until it was replaced in 1812. Many of Von Steuben’s writings are still in use in today’s army manuals, such as FM 3-21.5 Drill and Ceremony. (photo from Army News Service)



Baron Von Steuben drilling American recruits at Valley Forge in 1778


The Chevalier de Pontgibaud was a wealthy but ne’er-do-well volunteer in the continental army. In his eyewitness account of life at Valley Forge, he tells us;


“Soon I came in sight of the camp. My imagination had pictured an army with uniforms, the glitter of arms, standards, etc., in short, military pomp of all sorts; Instead of the imposing spectacle I expected, I saw, grouped together or standing alone, a few militiamen, poorly clad, and for the most part without shoes – many of them badly armed, but all well supplied with provisions, and I noticed that tea and sugar formed part of their rations. I did not then know that this was not unusual, and I laughed, for it made me think of the recruiting sergeants on the Quai de la Ferraille at Paris, who say to the yokels, ‘You will want for nothing when you are in the regiment, but if bread should run short you must not mind eating cakes.’ Here the soldiers had tea and sugar.”



Hopefully these primary source materials, photographs and readings shed a more human and fallible light upon the sometimes deified men and women who fought for American independence.


As has often been said, the price of freedom is never free.




¹Dvorak, Petula, “This woman’s name appears on the Declaration of Independence. So why don’t we know her story?” The Washington Post 7/3/17