The ProsenPeople

Notes of Forgiveness: Part Two of a Two-Part Blog

Tuesday, November 25, 2014 | Permalink

Yesterday, Maxim D. Shrayer wrote about young Jews lost in Leningrad. His latest book is Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story. He has been blogging here this week for the Visiting Scribe series about the texture of Jewish memory—about a buried Soviet past which means more to Jewish immigrants in America than it does to today's Russians in Russia.

Words—especially words of an adopted language—fail to describe how good it felt to take a short break from the turbulent life of a Moscow refusenik family and to spend time with close friends in a city-museum of history. At some point in our stroll through Leningrad we chanced upon a movie set. It must have been an episode about the 1900s revolutionary unrest in the city. We saw barricades, upturned carts and broken-off wheels, all sorts of odd pieces of antique junk, student greatcoats with rows of silver buttons, old-fashioned worker's caps, and even a whip lying on the cobblestones. The film crew must have been taking a lunch break, there was not a soul on the site, not even a security guard. We walked around without obstruction, trying to put the scene together. Had a unit of Cossacks just rushed by, charging at a group of street protesters? Had the police just carried away the bodies of injured students?

Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Photo by Maxim D. Shrayer.

The movie set was just a few blocks from the editorial offices of Aurora, one of Leningrad's monthly magazines. I left a batch of poems in the hands of an editor with bushy eyebrows, who had looked them over and promised to recommend them for publication. I was still hoping to get my poems published in Soviet magazines, but my efforts would soon come to a halt. In January, political currents would pick me up and carry me, and I wouldn't resume my publishing efforts until the summer of 1987, already in Italy, already a Jewish-Russian émigré.

In January 1987, while staying with my friend Max Mussel at a ski lodge outside Moscow, I cast the impressions of that magical December 1986 Leningrad trip into a three-part poem. I would ski in the morning and then lounge in bed in the afternoon, composing, while my friend Max read a Russian translation of Look Homeward, Angel. In writing this poem I pictured myself as an American journalist embedded with Soviet college students so as to understand their lives and gain their perspective. In the poem there was a "girl in a short coat" and a "friend in misted-over spectacles." The characters were painted from an estranged, otherworldly point of view. It was, I now understand, a poem of parting in advance of the parting itself. When I re-read this Leningrad poem today—and also try to work it out in English—I'm struck by the near-absence of either the gruesome Soviet existence or any overtly Jewish references: "games of a tame autumn deity/ we who fell for these games/ shaking the train station frenzy away/ our girl without asking she blindfolded us/ with a scrap of Leningrad mist saved under the flap of her coat." If it weren't for a mention of the streets of Leningrad and an evocation of the movie set that we had come upon, one couldn't even tell that the poem described the Soviet 1980s. As a Jewish-Russian émigré who has spent more than half of his life without Russia, I'm surprised when I hear not only notes of farewell but also notes of forgiveness in the poem I wrote in 1987. Whose forgiveness—and for what—could I possibly have in mind?

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual writer and a professor at Boston College. Born in Moscow in 1967 in the family of the writer David Shrayer-Petrov, Shrayer emigrated to the United States in 1987. He has authored over ten books in English and Russian, among them the memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, the story collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, and the Holocaust study I SAW IT. Shrayer’s Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. Shrayer’s latest book is Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. A recent review in Jewish Book Council's literary review magazine Jewish Book World called Leaving Russia a “stunning memoir” and recommended that it “should be assigned reading for anyone interested in the Jewish experience of the twentieth century.”

Copyright © 2014 by Maxim D. Shrayer

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Young Jews Lost in Leningrad: Part One of a Two-Part Blog

Monday, November 24, 2014 | Permalink

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual writer and a professor at Boston College. Shrayer’s latest book is Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story, a finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Awards. This week he blogs for the Visiting Scribe series about the texture of Jewish memory—about a buried Soviet past which means more to Jewish immigrants in America than it does to today's Russians in Russia.

I felt the first pangs of this Leningrad remembrance when my daughters and their Hebrew school classmates, standing in a semicircle next to the bimah, sang “Or Zarua LaTzadik….“ Then it was Mickey Katz, a wonderful Boston cellist and the comedian’s namesake, living through every measure of Kol Nidre and reminding me so acutely of a Jewish musician I once knew in Leningrad. And finally, there were wet striations on the eastern wall of our shul’s main sanctuary, marks of recent water damage or watermarks of aged Soviet memory. I was in shul with my wife, daughters and parents, our Brookline shul with a gilded dome; I was also back in Russia, under the tall dome of Leningrad’s autumnal sky…

On a snowy Thursday in December of 1986 my best Moscow friend Max Mussel and I met up at the Leningradsky train station. Ditching Friday and Saturday classes, we went to Leningrad for the weekend. It was a familiar routine: two or three times a year during 1984–86, Max and I would go to Russia's westernmost city, where my father had been born and raised, just to get away from our inland capital. We would either take the cheapest overnight train from Moscow and ride in a car with doorless sleeper compartments, or, when money was particularly tight, we went by day train with its seats made of uncushioned wood. Our monthly university stipends were about forty to forty-five rubles, and the cheapest roundtrip student ticket to Leningrad cost about ten rubles, so with some help from our parents we could almost afford these occasional trips.

Waxing poetic about the architectural splendor of St. Petersburg, this last of the great European cities, would be like saying that Paris is romantic in the spring—equally true and trite. And while Max and I loved what was left of St. Petersburg in the Leningrad of our Soviet student years, it wasn't the Western architecture that so attracted us. Rather, going to Leningrad accorded the uplifting sensation of being at the boundary, the Gulf of Finland separating Russia from—linking it to—the West.

On that particular December visit in 1986 we took a train Thursday night, expecting to arrive in a northern city choked with snow and icy chill. Express overnight trains arrived early in the morning, and in winter, immediately upon getting off the train, Muscovites would take comfort in knowing that their climate was less severe. This time, as we walked up the long platform of Leningrad’s Moskovsky station, songs about the city of Lenin, the cradle of Revolution, booming from up on high, Max and I were surprised how unseasonably warm it felt. Buttons were undone and winter hats stuffed in our weekend duffle bags. Our best Leningrad friend Katya Tsarapkina, who met us on the platform by the entrance to the station, remarked with only a bit of irony that we both looked like "young Western authors or filmmakers" visiting her windy Soviet city.

Maxim Mussel and Maxim D. Shrayer. 1986. Photo courtesy of Maxim D. Shrayer.

Years later we would refer to that December 1986 visit to Leningrad as our "surrealist" trip. The word siur (short for the Russian “siurrealizm”) was considered chic, and we used it not always correctly or judiciously. My recollections of that visit are enveloped with a film of strangeness, and not just tinged with spellbinding illusions of loss. Such was the light, crisp and bright, with strips of azure and magenta around the edges of buildings and monuments. Such was the air our lungs gulped that morning; not the arresting air blowing from the Gulf of Finland, but a warm, southerly breeze, as though wafting in, impossibly, from the Mediterranean. And such was the mood that overtook us at the train station platform and held us, happy and serene, for the rest of the warm December day.

Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Photo by Maxim D. Shrayer.

We dropped the bags at Katya’s apartment. My father and Katya's mother, Inga Kogan, are the same age and grew up in adjacent buildings in Lesnoye, a neighborhood of Leningrad's Vyborg working-class district. And as if this connection wasn't enough, in Leningrad Katya and her parents were living in an apartment house erected next to the site of a razed eighteenth-century building where my father had grown up. When we stayed there during our visits to Leningrad, we would be carried back to the time of my father’s postwar boyhood in the siege-ravaged Leningrad, but also to the youth and Khrushchev’s Thaw that our parents had in common.

Katya, too, was blowing off classes at her Chemical-Pharmaceutical Institute. The three of us rode the metro back to the center and walked along the embankment of the undulating Griboedov Canal, heading for Leningrad's Theater Square, site of the Kirov Theater (now, again, Mariinsky) and the Leningrad Conservatory of Music. There, at the college attached to the conservatory, our friend Marina Evreison was studying piano. Marina's last name means "Jewison"; when she said her name in public, people turned around. This petite woman with perceptive eyes of Nevan grey was something of a legend in the circles of young Leningrad musicians, owing both to her talent and to the quiet dignity with which she carried her most Jewish of names. Katya, Max, and I swang by the wing of the conservatory where Marina's class was about to end. We ran down the conservatory's granite steps cracked by wartime bombardments and polished by the feet of many great musicians. We were feeling free and rebellious. All day, while it was still light out, we wandered around Leningrad, soaking in its beauty. As it turned out, this was to be my last visit to Leningrad prior to emigration, but I could hardly imagine at the time that six months later, in June 1987, I would leave Moscow for good—to become first a Jewish refugee in Italy, then a Soviet immigrant on an East Coast university campus.

Born in Moscow in 1967 in the family of the writer David Shrayer-Petrov, Maxim D. Shrayer emigrated to the United States in 1987. He has authored over ten books in English and Russian, among them the memoir Waiting for America: A Story of Emigration, the story collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam, and the Holocaust study I SAW IT. Shrayer’s Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature won a 2007 National Jewish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. A recent review in Jewish Book Council's literary review magazine Jewish Book World called Leaving Russia, his latest book, a “stunning memoir” and recommended that it “should be assigned reading for anyone interested in the Jewish experience of the twentieth century.”

Copyright © 2014 by Maxim D. Shrayer

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Friday, November 21, 2014 | Permalink

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The Classic Jewish Children's Novel for Thanksgiving, Molly's Pilgrim

Friday, November 21, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Chava Lansky

With Thanksgiving approaching it’s time to pull the classic Jewish children’s novel Molly’s Pilgrim by Barbara Cohen off the shelf. This touching tale tells the story of Molly, a young girl who’s just moved with her family to the U.S. from Russia to escape anti-Semitism and winds up as the only Jewish child in her third-grade class. She’s bullied in her new school for old-world clothes and accent. But when she’s asked to make a pilgrim doll as a Thanksgiving assignment, she helps her peers to discover that Thanksgiving is really a celebration of all kinds of pilgrims.

This sweet novel for readers aged six to ten will give children a Jewish perspective on the Thanksgiving holiday while teaching them about diversity and acceptance. The perfect gift to keep the young ones busy at the Thanksgiving table.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of November 17th

Friday, November 21, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We’re catching up from the Jewish holiday blitz just in time for Thanksgiving next week! In case you’ve been as busy as we have, here are some highlights from the past several weeks:

Reading All the Trees of the Forest: Israel’s Woodlands from the Bible to the Forest by leading Israeli environmental activist Alon Tal, Juli Berwald recalled her childhood donations to the Jewish National Fund and questioned whether her dimes, pennies, and nickels “might have helped plant some of those misconceived pine trees” that proved flammable and destabilizing to the native ecosystems of mid-century Israel. All the Trees of the Forest provides more than just an ecological study; Tal tells the entirety of the region’s history through its forestation, razes, and agriculture.

In many ways, Tal explains, forests tell the story of human civilization. In Biblical times, deforestation was used as a military tactic, a process exacerbated by the grazing animals of the nomadic tribes that wandered the land between battles. Razing trees continued on and off through the Ottoman rule so that the land was fairly decimated by the 1920s when a massive tree planting effort began with the British takeover... “The forests of Israel constitute a grand experiment.” Tal explains. And lucky for us, the experiment continues.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman led an incredible discussion for Jewish twenty-somethings in New York’s Upper West Side just before kicking off her Jewish Book Month tour, addressing Israel’s gender politics and feminist activism over the past several years.

Israel has seen some progress: segregated buses are down to a third of where they were three years ago, and after a driver was heavily fined by the government for the assault of a female passenger on his bus Eged employees have made a better habit of intervening when a passenger is harassed or threatened. There have been other victories for women’s civil rights in Israel over the past couple years: grassroots campaigns and initiatives have gained firm footing in Israeli society, enabling partnerships across denominational lines and placing much-needed accountability on the government and political leaders—not just the religious ones. “The story here is about the secular government, the state apparatus, supporting religious extremism. The story is not about religious extremists, but how the secular world enables them.”

There’s also some great fiction out of Israel recently: Assaf Gavron’s newest novel The Hilltop gets inside the mind of an Israel settler, and his contemporary short story anthology co-edited with Etgar Keret , Tel Aviv Noir, features current Israeli writers whose works Gavron and Keret feel should be receiving international attention.

Can’t get enough crime writing? David Liss’s The Day of Atonement is a historical novel of an avenger exacting retribution for his parents’ execution at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition. Converting back to his family’s long-lost religion out of spite, Sebastião Raposa’s developing Jewish faith forces him to question the morality of his vigilante mission.

Daniel Silva’s latest novel also twists through history with the mystery of a stolen Caravaggio painting. Returning art restorer and crime solver Gabriel Allon once again fights his inner demons and tears after his objective, hunting down the assets of a powerful Middle Eastern ruler in The Heist.

For a non-fiction chase through history, be sure not to miss Sarah Wildman’s outtakes from Paper Love, published in a four-part installment on The ProsenPeople. The epistolary love story between her grandfather and the woman he had to leave behind in the Second World War impelled Wildman to search for strangers and examine her own family’s survival out of Austria.

It was hard for me to leave out any of the words written by Valerie Scheftel, the woman my grandfather left behind. But there were a few that didn’t fit. And Valy’s letters—as devastating as they are—sometimes, too, ranged to the mundane, just like all the letter writers of her day included the tiny things that now make up our email feeds. Life, even in deprivation, was not always worth filling up a page about. And yet, even Valy’s shortest notes can wallop me with sadness.

Gathering lost stories from the Holocaust is also at the heart of Testimony: The Legacy of Schindler’s List and the USC Shoah Foundation:

As Testimony pushes further and further into the evolution and technicalities of amass­ing the fifty-two thousand recorded interviews that now comprise the Shoah Project archive, its pages are increasingly interrupted by transcripts of the very testimonies crunched into the numbers and facts the book presents. These excerpts range from anecdotes about life before the war to the unimaginable experiences from within the Holocaust to descriptions of how these survivors have lived since. In this, the book demonstrates its keen balance: neither under-crediting Spielberg— his vision, his savvy, and his influence, (nor allowing his prominence to overshadow the efforts of his team—down to the film extras and phone line volunteers,) Testimony serves testament to the dedication of everyone involved in one of the most monumental archival initiatives of the modern age, from Schindler’s List’s producers to its crew to its cast, from the Shoah Foundation’s visionaries to the volunteer videographers capturing interviews on their personal recording equip­ment, from Steven Spielberg to the aging, determined, brave, and frightened witnesses to the Holocaust who came forward to tell him—and through him, the world—not just what happened to them, but who they are, to the next generation inheriting these stories through the Shoah Foundation.

And to the next generation inheriting these stories directly from their grandparents? Michel Laub’s outstanding novella Diary of the Fall is “an arresting examination of the father-son relationship contending with a Holocaust legacy, staged within the insularity of Jewish Brazil.” If you haven’t had much exposure to contemporary Brazilian literature, start here.

Would it make any difference if the things I’m describing are still true more than half a century after Auschwitz, when no one can bear to hear about it anymore, when even to me it seems old-fashioned to write about it, or are those things only of importance to me because of the implications they had for the lives around me?

Chances are you’ve had plenty of exposure to the works of William Shakespeare, but you’ve never read them like this: Lois Leveen blogged about her process for writing a Jewish character into William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as this week’s Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople. Drawing on her experience of seeing herself in a different time period during the Passover seder and the Talmudic tradition of building a narrative out of unanswered questions, Lois transformed a negligible Shakespeare character into the Jewish protagonist of Juliet’s Nurse.

The part of me that earned a Ph.D. in literary studies might argue that the question of identity is already at the heart of Romeo and Juliet. In the most famous scene, when Juliet wonders, "wherefore art thou Romeo?" and then insists "a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet," she's plumbing how much of who Romeo is depends on who his people are – in his case, the Montagues, or as we might say, the whole mishpucha. I could draw some analogy from the question of family identity to the question of Jewish identity, particularly the dynamic combination of culture and ritual that defines what it means to be a Jew in contemporary America.

After completing the novel, Lois found herself confronting Shakespeare’s engagement with ideas of Jewishness, beyond Shylock of The Merchant of Venice. Examining passages from Two Gentleman of Verona, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, and Henry IV, Lois mapped the experience of Jews in England during Elizabeth’s reign—and the identities of their gentile neighbors who projected the image of the Jew as expressed by the Bard.

Unlike groups defined by nationality, Jews might shift their geographic presence; but "Jewishness" also implied a different kind of potential instability. In countries under the Inquisition, suspicions persisted regarding whether conversos, Jews forced to convert, were secretly maintaining their Jewish identity and practices. In England, there was a strangely inverse fear that Catholics might be infiltrating the country by disguising themselves as Jews. And throughout Europe, as part of the immense rift begun by the Protestant Reformation, some Catholics accused Protestants of being too like Jews in their practices and beliefs—and some Protestants alleged the same about Catholics.

Four centuries later, Deborah Levy struggled with the perception of Jews during her childhood in South Africa, detailed among the essays of Things I Don’t Want to Know: On Writing. Facing discrimination during grade school pushed her to rebel through writing, as she has continued to do ever since.

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2014 Jewish Book Council Chanukah Gift Guide

Monday, November 17, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

We know you book lovers out there have been waiting all year for what's finally upon us: Jewish Book Month — an annual event to promote Jewish literature the month preceding Chanukah (this year Jewish Book Month runs from November 16th-December 16th)! While we work all year to promote Jewish interest literature, this is the month when many of our efforts culminate in hundreds of events across the country featuring Jewish interest books and authors. If you're looking for an interesting book event, now is the time to start checking out your local listings. You can see if your community hosts a Jewish book fair or event with JBC authors by visiting our list of participating JBC Network sites.

With Jewish Book Month in full swing, it's also time to start thinking about Chanukah, and, of course, that means Chanukah gifts. In our humble opinion, there is no better gift for the holiday season than a good book and we certainly have no shortage of recommendations. That said, we did decide to offer a quick 2014 gift-giving cheat sheet below, in case you don't have time to browse through the thousands of books filling our book archive (although we do recommend a browse — we've got something for everyone!).

So take a gander below, check out the children's Chanukah gift-giving guide here, and if you have a loved one in the NYC area, consider buying them a Jewish Literary Map of NYC or a JBC Circle membership for Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation. Use gift code CH2014 to receive an extra 15% off your JBC Circle membership!

(Feel free to add your own 2014 gift recommendations in the comments below.)


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2014 Jewish Book Council Chanukah Gift Guide for Children

Monday, November 17, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We know it's only November, but we've already got Chanukah on our mind. Earlier today we published our 2014 Chanukah gift-giving guide for adults, but our list wouldn't be complete without a few books for the youngins. See our 2014 Children's & YA cheatsheet below for the newest holiday books, illustrated titles, middle grade reads, and YA novels:

Chanukah Books
Picture Books
Middle Grades
Young Adult

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Friday, November 14, 2014 | Permalink

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Spicing Children's Literature with Jewish Humor and Jewish Life

Friday, November 14, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The 16th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Seminar was held on Sunday, November 2nd at the Jewish Book Council offices in New York City. An intimate gathering of 30 or so authors and artists spent a full day workshopping and learning about different facets of children’s book publishing.

Book designer, artistic director, and children’s author Claudia Carlson kicked off the seminar with a keynote speech about her personal trajectory climbing the ropes in a very difficult industry. Claudia’s tenacity—necessary for any aspiring illustrator, designer or writer—immediately struck and resonated with her audience: unable to find the kind of work she desired upon entering the publishing world, Claudia enrolled in as many workshops and courses as her schedule allowed, took jobs in departments she had never considered before, and spent her lunches browsing bookstores to “research” how other designers approach books. “A good book cover will make someone pick up a book already asking a question—but none of it can make up for bad writing,” she observed.

Claudia named Uri Shulevitz’s Writing with Pictures as the ultimate resource for illustration and book design, and recommended taking calligraphy courses to sharpen one’s eye across the page. Book covers are more about typography and design than art—Claudia recalls a former mentor repeating, “Stop illustrating the cover!” over her drafts—and the interiors have to be set to match the stories they contain. “Good book design is like a table setting,” Claudia quipped, “people should remember the food and conversation, not the plates. A good designer illuminates the words and pictures, never overpowers them.”

Seth Fishman and Shira Schindel followed with a split presentation on researching and querying literary agencies and exploring e-publishing options. Seth, a literary agent and current JBC Network author, offered earnest advice on finding the right agent—“An agent works for you: if you’re with the wrong agent it can really burn your career. You want to find a partner in your agent; editors, publishers come and go, but agents take their clients with them wherever they end up.”—and outlined the optimal query letter. Seth has noticed a “direct correlation between research and quality of writing,” observing that authors who have clearly put in the time to learn about the agencies their querying and the industry in general ten to prove the better writers in the “slush pile.” Shira, who heads acquisitions for Qlovi, heartily agreed with Seth on the importance of making a strong impression from the slush pile, mentioning that most firms assign interns to sort through all query letters for standouts. She discussed the advantages and drawbacks of e-publishing and digitally-enhanced books, comparing different sites and sources—and their terms.

Freelance journalist and children’s book review Penny Schwartz facilitated an author panel featuring Leslie A. Kimmelman, Linda Marshall, and Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum. Leslie’s career in Jewish children’s book writing grew out of a personal need for a vibrant library for her own children. “At the time, there was only Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins, All-of-a-Kind Family, and Zlateh the Goat. The only Jewish children’s books when my kids were growing up were pedantic, dated, and small-press.” She recalled her children asking her why Charlie Brown celebrates Christmas as an example of how few literary characters existed to whom they could relate during the holidays. “I think it’s really important for kids to read Jewish books that aren’t about the shtetl or the Holocaust—non-Jewish kids, too—in order to teach children about Judaism, and to teach non-Jews about Judaism.”

Linda agreed, adding that she frequently hands her book to non-Jewish parents—even ones specific to Jewish holidays or history. “The Jewish values and Jewish stories I write about are applicable everywhere, to everyone; I’ll hand The Passover Lamb to the man who runs the newsstand on my way to work—and he’s definitely not Jewish—and ask him for feedback, what his kids think of the book.”

“I really want to develop a library of books that speak to Jewish children,” Leslie followed up. “Books that are universal but just happen to be Jewish; characters are doing Jewish things, but that’s not the focus.”

“It’s like a spice when you’re cooking something,” illustrated Andria, whose own desire to be a writer arose out of a love for the sound of literature from listening to her father read science fiction and Robert Louis Stevenson novels aloud. “You have this delicious spice that will enhance the book, the story, but you add too much and it tastes terrible.”

“I happen to think it tastes great,” Leslie chuckled, “but maybe other people just don’t like the spice! The characters that always stuck out to me—even now—are the villagers of Chelm: every time I read a Chelm story I think it’s hysterical. Jewish humor is so distinctive, and such a wonderful device for children’s literature, especially. I could it eat it by the bowlful.”

After bowlfuls of actual food, following the lunch break Vivian Newman from the PJ Library presented on how children’s books teach and transmit social and moral lessons. Children acquire values through discussion, role models, and experimentation with different behaviors—and books serve as a vehicle for all three. “Reading with children presents an opportunity to bring up issues or ideas that might not arise in daily life; characters serve as role models and anti-role models; and parents can use books to show a child what interests them and other adults in the child’s life, on top of presenting new perspectives that the child might not encounter elsewhere.”

Claudia Carlson returned for a Q&A session together with Penguin Random House editor Avery Briggs to answer questions about what they each look for in a manuscript and the shift in children’s book publishing to accommodate the Common Core.

The presence of several Jewish Book Council Board and staff members—including Jewish Book World’s Children’s & YA section editor Michal Malen—exhibits the Jewish Book Council’s dedication to the reading, writing, publishing, and distribution of Jewish children’s literature. See what children’s and YA titles been reviewed in the most recent issue of Jewish Book World and the full index of starred children’s reviews online, and contact the Jewish Book Council through the form below for more information about next year’s seminar!

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The Boy with the Duffle Bag

Friday, November 14, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Mike Kelly wrote about looking into the bombmaker who built the bomb that blew up a bus on Jaffa Road in 1996 and his journey from 9/11 to Jerusalem's Jaffa Road. His newest book, The Bus on Jaffa Road: A Story of Middle East Terrorism and the Search for Justice, chronicles the aftermath of the Hamas suicide bombing of a commuter bus in downtown Jerusalem on Feb. 25, 1996. The book traces the capture of the key bomb-maker and the efforts by the families of two Americans to hold Iran accountable for financing the bombing and training the bomb-maker – only to discover that the American government was trying to block them. He has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Majid was was nineteen and learning to lay tile at a trade school. On a Friday in February 1996, his cousin – an older man with ties to Hamas – asked if he wanted to “do a mission.” Two days later, Majid stepped aboard a commuter bus on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, carrying a duffle bag filled with twenty pounds of explosives and wired to detonate with the press of a button. After the doors closed, he stood, yelled “God is great” in Arabic and pressed that button. Twenty-six people died – twenty-seven if you include Majid.

Why did he do it? How did an otherwise ordinary nineteen-year-old Palestinian decide so quickly on a Friday to kill himself so brutally on a Sunday?

Those questions troubled me as I researched The Bus on Jaffa Road.

And so, on another Sunday, almost seventeen years later, I drove to Majid’s home in the Palestinian refugee community of al-Fawwar in the Judean hills near the ancient city of Hebron. Like any writer, I suppose I was hoping for some sort of clear answer to a crucial central question of why this young man killed himself. And yet, as I approached al-Fawwar, I sensed that such clarity may still be impossible.

I found Majid’s family home – actually a vacant lot now. Soon after he had been implicated in the Jaffa Road bombing, his home had been destroyed by the Israeli army. I asked where the family was now. A young man guided me through a series of narrow lanes and up a hill where I met Majid’s father, Muhammad.

I introduced myself and said I wanted to speak about Majid. Muhammad led me into his family’s new home, a two-story, concrete structure that sat on a hillside and overlooked a lush valley of small farms. We entered a room with only one photo on the otherwise bare walls. The photo was of Majid.

I asked Muhammad why Majid killed himself. Muhammad shook his head. He did not know why and explained that if he had known of his son’s plans he would have tried to stop him. He said he understands why some young men participate in suicide bombings. He cited the Israeli occupation, the lack of jobs and the overall feeling among some Palestinians that there is no future for them. But then his voice trailed off.

“As a father I couldn’t bear dealing with this issue.”

I pointed to the photo of Majid on the wall.

“Why do you keep his photo there?” I asked.

“Because he is my son,” Muhammad said.

Our conversation continues for another hour or so. Muhammad said that Majid would have been in his mid-thirties by now, probably married and the father of children.

“Do people in al-Fawwar talk about him?" I asked.

Muhammad shook his head.

“Not very much,” he said. “Things like that go into oblivion.”

For more information about The Bus on Jaffa Road as well as a video and an excerpt, please check out

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