A glimpse of Jewish life in Turkey, thanks to a Squirrel Hill student
"At the Point of Joy and Sorrow"
It all started in a simple classroom.
The class: Independent Literary Publishing at Chatham University. The student? Madison Jackson, a Squirrel Hill graduate student in the second year of her two-year Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing.
Jackson was tasked with creating an independent press, a publishing house all her own, and she dubbed it with the English translation of her Hebrew name — Malka Ariela, or “Queen of Lions.”
“It has this idea of representing strength, of being fierce,” Jackson told the Chronicle. “And ‘Malka’ makes it [about] strong women.”
Jackson already had an author in mind for her first chapbook, a short tome of about 40 pages printed in a limited run: Liza Cemel, a Turkish-bred Jew living in Germany and writing about the experience of being Jewish in a less-expected corner of the Diaspora.
The title of Cemel’s soon-to-be-released U.S. debut is “At the Point of Joy and Sorrow: Essays about Jewish Life In Turkey.”
“She’s a passionate Jewish thinker, a passionate writer — she’s 24 years old, and I thought she’d be someone interesting to reach out to,” Jackson said. “I wanted to bring her work to an English, North American audience.”
While working on the book, Cemel’s world was rocked by the Turkish earthquake; the head of Jewish life in her home city of Antakya was killed, along with many others. But, largely true to the initial concept, Cemel added only one essay about life in Turkey after the earthquake.
All proceeds above production costs will be donated to a nonprofit supporting Turkish rebuilding.
“We’re really making this into a project that can help the Jewish world in Turkey,” Jackson said.
Cemel is modest about the colorful experiences that inspired her to write essays about Jewish life and Jewish living.
“Having lived in different countries, I got to experience different parts of the world; of myself; of cultures; of my Judaism, and specifically of different Jewish communities,” Cemel told the Chronicle. “I tried to take different pieces from each and every community, as well as ideas from each and every person that touched my life and my outlook on life.”
Cemel says her unique vision of Jewishness “is a combination of roots and traditions, continuous Jewish learning and growth, unity and support, experience and discovery of Jewish stories, music, languages and, of course, cuisine!”
Jackson, who is Jewish, has never been to Turkey. But Cemel has taught her a great deal through conversation — and her writing.
“I’ve learned a lot about Turkey through being friends with, and now working with, Liza,” Jackson said.
Cemel admits she “did not realize the actual meaning and potential” of the publishing project when Jackson first approached her about it.
“My guess is that young writers like me might face the challenges of underestimating the ideas we share with the world —at least our world — which we can influence for the better,” Cemel said. “Of course, this is immensely flattering that someone on the other side of the world found the stories very valuable, as I did. The outcomes excite me for my personal and professional growth, and I am looking forward to new things it will bring.”
The book has Jackson looking forward to new things, too.
“It definitely makes me want to go to Turkey even more,” she said. “Just like Jewish life anywhere, Jewish life in Turkey is complicated. While very unique, it has ways of being similar to Jewish life in other parts of the world.”
A launch party for the chapbook will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on April 18, in The Welker Room inside the James Laughlin Music Center on the university’s Squirrel Hill campus. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.