The ProsenPeople

5 Books That Informed 'The Fortunate Ones'

Monday, February 27, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ellen Umansky recalled the complicated kashrut of her childhood home. With the recent release of her novel The Fortunate Ones, Ellen is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

I loved doing research for The Fortunate Onesperhapstoo much at times. I spent countless hours searching for the right book or anecdote, sometimes delaying the actual writing that needed to get done, convinced that once I found the elusive detail, the secret of the novel that I was trying to construct would magically unlock and all would be solved.

Not exactly. And yet, doing research on worlds that I had never visited and never could, such as Vienna on the eve of World War II, was deeply compelling to me. When I read about the scarcity of pantyhose in postwar London and how women would draw lines in pencil on their bare legs to imitate the look of seamed stockings, the tactile specificity of this fact gave me a rush. Everything is research, or could be, I told myself. The following is a list of just a few of the sources I consulted while working on The Fortunate Ones.

Other People’s Houses by Lore Segal

When I was a graduate student in writing at Columbia University, I studied briefly with Lore Segal, who taught a seminar in Jane Austen. We MFA students weren’t disciplined lot, and I remember being shocked when I walked into class one morning and Lore handed us a pop quiz. “You must take the work seriously,” she declared in a crisp accent that I couldn’t quite place. I later learned that Lore had been a child refugee, sent on a train by herself at the age of 10 from Vienna to live in England, where she became a great fan of English writers—Jane Austen chief among them.

I thought of Lore and her work often when I was writing my character Rose, not only her life experience, but also her sharp wit and intelligence. Her first novel, Other People’s Houses, charts its protagonist’s flight from Vienna to England on a Kindertransport, the same journey that Lore herself undertook, and doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of living among strangers. “On the twelfth [of March], Hitler took Austria and my mother called Tante Trude a cow,” Segal writes in one of the book’s opening lines. The novel is as clear-eyed and unsentimental and insightful as Segal herself.

Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered by Ruth Kluger

Like Lore Segal, Ruth Kluger was born in Vienna. When she was 11 years old, she was ordered to Theresienstadt, and later to Auschwitz. She survived the war, becoming a professor of German language in the United States, and wrote this memoir in her later years. It is a short, vital book that pulsates with intelligence and fury—at her parents, the act of writing about the Holocaust, the conventional wisdom of the survivor as hero. I recalled her arguments when I was conjuring up Rose and her objections to the way the Holocaust gets talked about, memorialized, and even, as Kluger says, prettified. “These stories have no end,” she writes. This memoir is barbed and hard and brilliant.

Into the Arms of Strangers
edited by Mark Jonathan Harris and Deborah Oppenheimer

I turned to this film and its accompanying volume to glean more about the emotional stories behind the Kindertransport. The footage is simple: interviews with about a dozen men and women in their late 70s and 80s, who as children in the late 1930s were ferried out of Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia to live in England. Their interviews are interspersed with still photographs from their childhoods, people and places long erased by much more than time. The subjects speak with frankness, humor, and sometimes bewilderment about the sea of change that overtook their childhoods. Some stories are small in their devastations—one woman describes how she realized she was Jewish when the village children refused to attend her eighth birthday party—other anecdotes are unspeakable, harrowing: Lory Cahn was seated on the Kindertransport when her father, watching her leave from the platform, urged her to open the window. They were holding hands when the train began to pull out, and he wouldn’t let go, tugging her through the window and onto the platform. Several years later, she and her parents were on another train, to Auschwitz.

The Rape of Europa by Lynn Nicholas

This magnificent, surprisingly suspenseful book examines the destruction that Hitler wrought on Europe through the particular lens of art. Lynn Nicholas follows Germans selling art in Switzerland in the late 1930s to purportedly rid the country of such “degenerate” work, but with the added benefit of raising badly needed foreign currency for the Third Reich; she tracks the herculean effort to safeguard treasures during wartime (the Mona Lisa was spirited out of the Louvre via ambulance, and taken to an undisclosed location in the south of France). The book is meticulous in covering the infuriating, heartbreaking complexities of the artwork’s fate post war, when refugees who had lost far more than possessions tried to track down the objects that were meaningful to them and rightly theirs.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

A brilliant novel about an Englishwoman named Ursula who keeps dying throughout the book—on the night she is born, as a child who falls off the roof of her house, as a woman who gets caught in a bombing raid during the Blitz—only to be resurrected by the author and begin anew. The construction might sound forced or complicated, but it’s a thrilling, compulsive read, and its genius lies in the strength of each narrative: in nearly every scenario, it feels as if Ursula is living the life she was intended to live. Much of the action of the novel takes place in the 1930s and ’40s in London, during the Blitz and in the years just afterward. I read it not only to soak up the details of that time period, which she builds without laying them on too thick, but also to learn at the feet of Atkinson and her prodigious gifts. Each time Ursula dies, her life story is altered. I found this constant revision comforting as I grappled with the writing of my own novel; the possibilities of art remain open and can be ever changing.

Ellen Umansky has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short-story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp. She has worked in the editorial departments of The Forward, Tablet, and The New Yorker.

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The First Story I Ever Stole

Monday, February 27, 2017 | Permalink

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novel One Night, Markovitch won the 2013 Sapir Prize for debut fiction; this week she releases Waking Lions, which recently received the 2017 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Ayelet will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Telling a secret to a writer is like giving a hug to a pickpocket. I stole this sentence from Amos Oz or A. B. Yehoshua, I can’t remember which one. But I do remember, very clearly, the first time I became a pickpocket—the first story I stole.

I was visiting my boyfriend’s family in a village in the north of Israel, when I noticed a strange house behind their fence. The house wasn’t especially dark or remarkably mysterious. There was no ivy on the walls, no bats hanging from the roof, yet there was some kind of sadness coming out of that yard, the way other yards had the voices of children coming out of them, or the smell of barbecue.

“Who lives this this house?” I asked.

“Beautiful Bella lives there,” my boyfriend replied. I gave him the look a girl gives to her boyfriend when he calls another girl beautiful, and he immediately added that beautiful Bella was eighty years old, and the most miserable woman in the village.

“Why miserable?”

Apparently Bella was not just beautiful. She was really beautiful. The kind of woman who makes robins fly backward, turtles run forward, and men freeze in place. But from among all the men who froze in place—and there were many who still did so—she was destined to marry the most worthless man in the village.


That was the first time I heard about the heroic mission that had gone terribly wrong. It happened more than sixty years ago, but everyone in the village had been talking about it ever since. They held on to their story like other villagers hold on to an area’s famous recipes or secret wines. I discovered that during the Second World War a group of Jewish farmers left Mandatory Palestine in order to get into Europe. Their plan was to fictively marry Jewish girls who weren’t allowed into Israel because of the British law of the time. These marriages of convenience were to save the girls from Nazi Europe and smuggle them in under the noses of the British. Once in Israel, the couples would all get divorces and continue with their lives. But that was not the case for beautiful Bella, who had been married by a farmer who was so stunned by her that he refused to let her go even after they reached the Promised Land. He held her against her will, under the power of religious law.

This story became the core of my first novel, One Night, Markovitch. Markovitch was the name of my protagonist, a name I chose to disguise the real man from the village. While I knew nothing of the real farmer, in the novel he’s depicted as the ultimate outsider, the kind nobody ever notices. I decided he must have been the type of person that the eye just cannot remember, that your gaze glides over, like the kids whose names no one knows at school. It’s this kind of man, I figured, who wouldn’t be able to let go of a lovely woman like Bella. He knew he’d never have such a chance again.

I changed the names of people and places, but as the book became successful, I started to fear—what if someone recognized himself in the lines of my novel? While I was waiting for the people from the village to knock at my door, the phone call from my grandmother came completely unexpectedly: “How could you do that to poor Markovitch?!”

While I was busy hiding the identity of the man from the village, I had given no thought to the name “Markovitch.” It had just popped out, and it seemed right. I completely forgot that my grandmother had a friend called Markovitch. From all her friends, he was the most unmemorable; you forgot him a moment after you met him. And so had I.

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen holds an MA in clinical psychology from Tel Aviv University. A recipient of Israel’s prestigious Sapir Prize, she has worked for the Israeli civil rights movement and written award-winning fiction and screenplays.

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Like Father, Like Son

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 | Permalink

Following up on his children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, Richard Michelson’s newest book for young readers The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew comes out tomorrow! Richard is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Child abuse! Had I lived in Jerusalem in the late nineteenth century, I would have undoubtedly joined the chorus of those charging Eliezer Ben-Yehuda with that crime.

Would I have considered the Maccabees religious zealots who deserved to be routed, or would I have joined their Chanukah celebration? Would I have accused Jesus of heresy or shared in his Passover feast?

History has a way of confounding your beliefs and expectations. I can only judge myself and others within my own timeframe, but I am certain that I would have disliked much about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, especially the way he bullied those around him—his children, wives, friends—in pursuit of his own dreams. But… what dreams they were, to bring Hebrew back to life in our own time! To champion a language, for how can you have a homeland without a common language?

Ben-Yehuda was successful beyond his wildest expectations, surmounting insurmountable odds. When Eliezer arrived in Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their daily language. Neighbors spoke Arabic, Spanish, Turkish, English, and numerous other dialects. It was a regular city of Babel. Jews who immigrated spoke Yiddish, Ladino, or any one of the many languages they had learned in the country that they emigrated from. Jews who had never left their Holy Land considered Hebrew appropriate only for religious worship. To speak Hebrew in the bathroom? Unspeakable! Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was meshugge!

But during his lifetime, 55 schools opened with all instruction in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda created the first Hebrew dictionary and coined words for countless ideas and objects that had not been in existence when Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language. To make up new words, he studied ancient languages related to Hebrew: Assyrian, Egyptian, Amharic, Coptic, and Arabic, which was then only Semitic language that had remained in use throughout the ages. Ben-Yehuda believed that Jews and Arabs were mishpacha— family—and should share the land and live together. He delivered a lecture at the Arabic Academy of Science and told his audience about the close linguistic relationship between Arabic and Hebrew. He explained how he had borrowed many words from Arabic, and that some Arabic words had been borrowed from Hebrew. Most Arabs respected him and were pleased to hear their “sister tongue” spoken in the markets.

In 1948 the State of Israel was established, and Hebrew was made the national language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew every day.

But my story is about Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, the very first child in over 2,000 years to grow up with Hebrew as their first and, for a time, only language. He would hear ONLY Hebrew until he was five years old: that meant, of course, he couldn’t play with the other neighborhood children, and his father went so far as to cover Ben Zion’s ears when cows were mooing and dogs were barking. He forbade his wife, Devorah, from comforting her son with the Russian folk songs that she had grown up hearing.

Eliezer Ben-Yehude had a point to prove and his son was his experimental subject. When Ben Zion was four years old, he had yet to speak, and his mother was beside herself with worry. The neighbors mocked the crazy man in their midst. I’d have had him arrested for child abuse.

And yet… and yet the more I read, the more I fell in love with this madman. His passion for words and language, and his single-minded focus won me over. It helps, of course, that the son grew up to idolize the father, and become a man of words himself. Ben-Zion changed his name to Itamar Ben-Avi. Ben-Avi means “son of my father,” and like his father, he remained interested in words and language throughout his life. He wrote a biography of his father, as well as his own autobiography; he became a journalist and newspaper publisher.

Eliezer wanted all Jews to learn Hebrew so they could talk with one another, regardless of their origins, but Itamar wanted everyone in the world to be able to converse. He championed an international language called Esperanto, though with less success than his father. (In 1966, William Shatner—before he became Captain Kirk of Star Trek fame—starred in the Hollywood thriller Incubus, written and acted entirely in Esperanto. But that is another tale entirely, and we shouldn’t blame Itamar for that fiasco.)

After my book was completed I had the honor of corresponding with Ben-Yehuda’s grandson, a Florida-based rabbi who is also named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and also went into “the family business.” He wrote a biography of his grandfather, and as a writer and scholar he continues to champion his love of words and the Hebrew language. So I guess it a good thing that I wasn’t the one making the decision in the late nineteenth century about whether or not to toss the meshugeneh into jail.

Richard Michelson is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has written many acclaimed books for adults and children, including Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoyand The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew.

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The So-Called Rules of Language, Literature, and Baseball

Monday, February 20, 2017 | Permalink

Following up on his children’s biography of Leonard Nimoy, Richard Michelson’s newest book for young readers The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew comes out tomorrow! Richard will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

A riddle: Which came first, the thought or the word? “In the Beginning was the Word,” but was that word thought into being? Or did the word create the thought?

My job title is writer, and words are my tools, my stock in trade. As a poet, I am often surprised when I finish a poem, as to the meaning I’ve communicated. I usually have no idea what I mean to say until I am done writing, and if the poem is successful I will be on the same journey as the reader: amazed by where my sentences have taken me. Right now, I still don’t know what this blog post will actually be about.

I write to discover what I am thinking. And yet the written word is what I use to capture my thoughts.

Most children think of language as “God-given,” or immutable, and why shouldn’t they? We teach them “the rules” in school, and grade them on their vocabulary, grammar, punctuation, and spelling. But, of course, rules are the fictions we tell ourselves so that we can all think that we are playing the same game.

Baseball always had three strikes and 4 balls and three outs and nine players and nine innings, didn’t it? Even back in the days when it was “created” by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown? As I learned while writing my book Lipman Pike: America’s First Home Run King, a National Jewish Book Award finalist, baseball wasn’t invented in Cooperstown, and likely Doubleday never even heard of the game, which evolved from Cricket—which evolved from Rounders, which evolved from God-knows-where, over time. In fact, in 1575 BCE (3500 years ago) there was a wall relief on the banks of the Nile in the shrine of Hathor in Hatshepsut’s Temple depicting the pharaoh Thothmes III holding an olivewood branch, ready to strike with his right hand. In his left hand, he holds a ball, which he appears ready to throw. The inscription reads: “Striking the ball for Hathor who is foremost in Thebes.”

Baseball wins could have just as easily gone to the first team to score 21 runs. There could have been no balls or strikes; there could have been one out per side or seven players per team. All were at one time in the rulebook. Language evolves in a similar fashion, by trial and error. Some words stick, and some never make it into popular usage.

So when artist/illustrator/educator/mensch Neil Waldman and I were having lunch fifteen years ago while collaborating on Too Young for Yiddish—through which I learned that the Yiddish language had evolved out of a mixture of Hebrew, Polish, and German, and that Isaac Bashevis Singer proudly claimed that Yiddish was the only language without a word for “armaments”—I asked Neil his thoughts about whether a language without specific words for weapons would inhibit thoughts of violence. I don’t recall his answer but I do remember him casually mentioning the life story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his quest to invent words and make Hebrew the daily language of the Jews. I was fascinated. Neil, who lived in Israel at one time, said: “I was going to write that story, but couldn’t find my way in. I now give you the idea as a gift.” It took me fifteen years to find my way in. (Thanks, Neil.)

Imagine trying to get Italians to all start speaking Latin again—and succeeding within your lifetime? Hebrew began to die out as a “living language” around the time of the Maccabees. Because it was used primarily for prayer, it hadn’t incorporated new words for anything invented since the language solidified 2000 years earlier. Ben Yehuda changed all that.

Of course, I didn’t think of the amount of work such labor entails. What fun, I thought instead, to be Adam naming the animals all over again! I wondered how Ben Yehuda made up a name for “ice cream” or “bicycle”—neither of which existed in biblical times. (You can find out if you read the book!)

The Language of Angels is a book about history, and it is a book about friendship and it is a book about family, and it is a book about the current political Mideast situation, and it is a book about the “reinvention” of Hebrew. And now I am at the end of this post and I’ve figured out what I wanted to say: my book is mostly about my love of words in and of themselves, and how much fun it is to play with language. That is something I hope to share with all children and those of you who once were children yourselves.

Richard Michelson is the proprietor of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has written many acclaimed books for adults and children, including Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoyand The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew.

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Three Sets of Dishes

Monday, February 20, 2017 | Permalink

Ellen Umansky is the author of The Fortunate Ones, a novel released last week about the fate of a Chaim Soutine painting left behind in Vienna. Ellen will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

My mother purchased the dishes to use poolside. They were plastic and brightly colored, a rainbow of plates that nested into each other. I remember countless summers spent by our pool, polishing off little English muffin pizzas my mother made and served on those plates, as I read my Trixie Belden mysteries, and books like When Hitler stole Pink Rabbit and Summer of My German Soldier.

We moved from New York to Los Angeles when I was six years old, and lived two miles up a twisting road that snaked high in the hills. The pool was kidney-shaped (that was how my parents described it, and how I took to describing it with great confidence, though I had no idea what a kidney looked like) and jutted over a sun-bleached canyon. We heard the cries of coyotes at night. I can only imagine what that must have been like for my parents to have moved to this foreign landscape—for my mother especially, who grew up in a small town in Northern Westchester, where her father helped establish the local synagogue.

We were Conservative Jews, raised in a fairly traditional Jewish household. We kept kosher at home, with two sets of dishes for milk and meat. Every year my mother turned over the kitchen for Passover, clearing out the chametz and taping off cabinets that we couldn’t use for eight days, and pulling out another set of dishes. But our adherence to kashrut was by no means steadfast. The meat we ate outside the home didn’t have to be designated kosher. And while all swine and the mixing of milk and meat was verboten, seafood was somehow acceptable. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of going to a raucous seafood restaurant called Gus’s in New York with my grandparents where we all wore bibs as we cracked open lobster shells and sucked out the meat.

At some point, our odd keeping of kashrut was codified in the dishes we used. We no longer had two sets of daily dishes, but three: one for milk, one for meat, and those colored plastic plates for treif.

My mother would pull out the plastic dishes when we brought in Chinese food (what is that mysterious meat in hot and sour soup? Who really knows!). They graced our table the time my older brother requested lobster for his birthday dinner and my mother pulled out the stops, buying live lobsters and setting them in our bathtub for the afternoon before boiling them in a huge pot in the kitchen, Annie-Hall-style.

It made no sense. Why have a designated set of non-kosher dishes? If that’s the case, why even keep kosher? I was a sensitive child, attracted to rules. For a couple of years, I studied the ingredient lists on candy and gum wrappers, looking for the OU-P symbol, eliminating anything from my diet that contained corn syrup. (My decision, not my parents’.) Later, I argued with my mother about the hypocrisy of claiming that we kept kashrut at all; we have a set of dishes for food we’re not supposed to eat! Why do we do this? I remember saying, standing in the kitchen with her.

“It’s true,” she said, and she shrugged. She was not easily riled up or dissuaded. I’m sure she returned to whatever cooking task was at hand, making sweet apricot chicken for the dozen or so people who she’d regularly have over for Friday night dinner. “But that’s the way we do it.”

I’m married now, with two kids of my own. We don’t keep two sets of dishes (or three), but in the tradition of my family, I too follow certain dietary rules: no pork or mixing of milk and meat in the house, and, for me, not outside either. The thought of a cheeseburger still makes me twinge. As I get older, the logic of the way we kept kosher makes sense to me. We might not have adhered to all the rules, but we were conscious of them. Every time my mother reached for the non-kosher plates, she was making a decision, thinking about what we were eating, how we were nourishing ourselves. And that awareness might not be everything, but it matters.

Those plastic dishes are long gone, I think. My mother passed away last year, and my stepfather still lives in the house on the hill, filled with her things. My brothers and I haven’t had the heart to go through her belongings yet. But I am tempted to look for those dishes the next time I am in Los Angeles, just as I wanted to buy this familiar set I spotted on eBay. Here we are, colorful in all our contradictions, the dishes say to me. We are imperfect, but we try.

Ellen Umansky has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including The New York Times, Salon, Playboy, and the short-story anthologies Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction from the Edge and Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp. She has worked in the editorial departments of The Forward, Tablet, and The New Yorker.

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Snag a Nice Jewish Boy by Passover in Four Steps

Thursday, February 16, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jen Glantz shared her top tips and secrets to online dating for Jewish women. With the release of her new book Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire), Jen is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

One of the main reasons I find myself with a ruthless case of Acid Reflux during holiday dinners back home in Boca Raton, Florida, isn’t because I ate too many bites of gefilta fish with horseradish, or because I drank my Manischewitz too quickly, but because I no longer can properly digest the question: “Why didn’t you bring home a mensch this year?”

There’s not a Yom Kippur break-fast or a Rosh Hashanah dinner that goes by where family members don’t smear my challah-bread stuffed self with questions about why I’m still single and, more importantly, why I haven’t found a match on, where in their mind there must be loads of wonderful Jewish guys all around the country waiting patiently for me behind computer screens.

While I’ve become a pro at tuning them out—breaking out in Hava Negila instead, shifting their attention from my MIA marital status on my underappreciated vocal talents instead—I have decided to kick off 2017 with the goal of surprising them by bringing home a Nice Jewish Boy by Passover, so they can pinch his cheeks, ask him about his family lineage, and stop pretending they are saving a seat at the table for someone named “Elijah” (I secretly think that’s the Haggadah’s way of saying we are saving this seat for Your Future Husband, Jen, and as soon as you bring him home, we’ll all stop pretending to have an imaginary friend).

So if you’re up to join me on this challenge, here are the four ways I plan to find a NJB before its time for all of us to ditch the carbs for a week and turn to matzah instead.

1. Get Rid of the Not-Nice Jewish Guy
Before we dive into this challenge, it is imperative that you say Shalom—and I mean the goodbye kind—to your ex-boyfriend. The one you still frequently look at on social media and hope to eyeball when you’re back home for Yom Kippur and sitting in shul for the entire day starving. In order to move forward, you have to move on. Change congregations, block them on social media, tell your mutual youth group friends that you are trying to move on and want them to stop giving you updates on his or her whereabouts.

Now that we’ve got the hardest step out of the way, let’s move forward.

2. Take Your Business Online
It may be one of your biggest hesitations, but downloading a dating app or paying for a membership to an online portal of eligible singles may be one of the fastest and most convenient ways to say hello to new potential suitors. The best part of this step is, you can browse for matches while sitting in your pajamas, on your couch, and eating defrosted kugel that you have stored in your freezer. The worst part about this step is that you’ll have to kiss many frogs before you find a prince, and by kiss, I mean you’ll have to go on way more coffee dates than you’d like with guys who look nothing like their profile picture and argue with you over Trump vs. Hilary.

Remember, there are five simple steps to hacking Jewish online dating. Make sure you read (and follow) these tips as you venture forth into the interwebs!

3. Go on as Many Dates as There Are Plagues
If you’re a one-date-a-year kind of person, it’s time to change your ways. Dating, nowadays, is a numbers game. If you want to meet the right person you may have to go on 7 dates a month or even—dare I say it—a week. The more people you meet in-person, the more you will think a) people are really strange and b) that you may just be one date away from kissing your beshert frog.

4. Say Yes to Your Local Matchmaker
I’m not saying you should shell out a couple of hundred dollars to meet with a professional dating coach or matchmaker. You don’t need that. Your family members are natural matchmakers themselves. It’s in their DNA. Just reach out to cousins your age or spread the word around your local relatives that you’re single and looking for a NJB. Before you know it, you’ll have phone numbers of every Schwartz, Bergstein, and Cohen who live on the east side of your town.

Follow these steps as closely as you (hopefully) did your Torah portion during your bar or bat mitzvah and you might find yourself smooching Mr. Right hello before asking the Four Questions at your next Passover seder.

Jen Glantz once wanted to become a rabbi but instead she became the world’s first professional bridesmaid and founder of Bridesmaid for Hire and the author of the new book, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire). She’s the heartbeat behind the website The Things I Learned From and the author of All My Friends are Engaged. She spends a good chunk of her free time searching for a mensch who will look at her with the same kind of googly eyes with which she looks at pizza.

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Chapter One, Revisited

Wednesday, February 15, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Georgia Hunter wrote about discovering her grandfather’s personality along with his story of surviving the Holocaust, the inspiration for her novel We Were the Lucky Ones. Georgia is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

When I was fifteen years old, I discovered that I came from a family of Holocaust survivors. Nine years later, armed with a digital voice recorder and a moleskin notebook, I set off to unearth and record my family’s story. I spent nearly a decade traversing the globe, interviewing family and digging up records from every possible source I could think of, eventually piecing together the bones of what would become my novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. The research was challenging, but even more of a test was deciding how to put my family’s narrative to paper—and where exactly to begin.

As authors often do, I spent months laboring over the opening for my book. Since many of the Kurcs lost touch with one other during the war, I knew each chapter would need to be told from a different relative’s perspective. I also knew I wanted Chapter One to be told through my grandfather’s eyes, and that it would be set in a jazz club in pre-war Paris—my grandfather was my link to the family story, and one of his best-known lifelong attributes was his passion for music.

My grandfather, Addy in the book, was the only member of his family who wasn’t in Poland at the start of the war. He was living in Toulouse, composing music and working as an engineer; often his weekends were spent tucked away in the music halls of Paris. Story has it, he received a letter in the spring of 1939 from his mother in Poland, urging him not to come home for Passover, but to stay in France; traveling across German-occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia, his mother worried, was too dangerous. For Addy, who hadn’t missed a family Seder in Radom in all of his 26 years, this letter was a turning point: it forced him to recognize the possibility of war, and to wonder whether he’d existed, until then, under a false sense of security. My idea for an opening chapter was to capture this turning point, while painting a picture of what life was like for Addy (as it was for many European Jews) before Poland fell to the Germans.

Researching Paris’s 1930s jazz scene, I stumbled upon the story of Josephine Baker, a young American entertainer legendary for her risqué attire and ostentatious dance routines. Baker performed often in Montmartre, a bohemian neighborhood in the city’s 18th arrondissement. When I read that she didn’t always perform alone—she was often accompanied by her diamond-collared pet cheetah, Chiquita—I was thrilled.

A cheetah! I remember thinking. What more dramatic opening could I ask for than a saber-toothed predator strolling onto the stage of a club in Montmartre, my grandfather looking on from a bar stool, an arm’s length away? The cat, I rationalized, could also be seen as a metaphor for the dangers to come. I wrote an opening paragraph I hoped would grab readers’ attention. Here’s how it read:

A cheetah saunters on stage and glares into the spotlight. The band stiffens. The music comes to an awkward halt and a hush comes over the crowd as the Grand Duc’s late-night patrons whisper and point, eyes trained on the large spotted animal. Addy sets his drink on the marble tabletop and stands, his gaze moving from the cat to the trumpet player squirming in his seat. Someone in the back of the smoke-filled room gives a whistle. The cheetah’s ears twitch. Finally, from behind the curtain a woman emerges, holding a leash in one hand and wearing nothing but a bejeweled bikini bottom and feathered headdress. The room erupts. The woman waves and shimmies toward center stage, beaming as the crowd cheers and the band, still trembling, gradually picks up where it left off.

As the chapter unfolds, I dive into my grandfather’s backstory, describing his mother’s letter, and what it meant to him. In my revisions, I agonized over the appropriate tone. Would he have felt angered by his mother’s request? Surprised? Guilty, for not seeing the signs earlier? After many (many) rounds of edits, I began to realize that, much as I loved the shock factor and tension the cheetah offered, it had begun to feel like a distraction. The real drama, I decided, wasn’t in Chiquita, but in the reality Addy would soon be forced to face.

I can see how it would have been easy for my grandfather to brush off the threats of war in the months leading up to it. He did not have the benefit of the perspective we have today. And he wasn’t alone in underestimating the potential for disaster. Some Parisians went so far as to call it the drôle de guerre, the Phony War. Now, of course, we know what was in store.

And so, I bid adieu to the cheetah in my opening, opting to give her just a brief mention later in the chapter. I focused instead on my grandfather, on the shadows of war that loomed overhead, on his unforeseeable future. This, I decided, was dramatic enough.

Georgia Hunter’s essays and photographs have been featured in The New York Times, travelgirl magazine, Austin Adventures, and The Explorers Passage. She keeps a blog about her book and continued research into her family history at

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A Girl's Guide to Hacking JDate

Tuesday, February 14, 2017 | Permalink

Jen Glantz is the author of All My Friends Are Engagedand Always a Bridesmaid (for Hire), out this week from Simon & Schuster. With the release of the new book, Jen is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Everything we do, we do online first.

We scan different websites to find the lowest prices on items before we snag them in-store, or just add them directly into our virtual shopping cart. We Google search somebody before we shake their hand in-person for a job interview, as if we’re amateur detectives cross-checking their life story via their MySpace, LinkedIn, and if we’re savvy enough, their LiveJournal page too.

So of course, for many of us, going online is where we bring our love lives when we are ready to find a good deal—or at least a better one than we may find late night at a bar or when we’re out with friends and a stranger approaches with a pick-up line that makes our eyes roll to the back of our heads.

For me, it was JDate. After watching the majority of my friends find their prince charmings on dating apps and websites (and having what felt like everyone from my mom to my childhood rabbi send me a promo email for the Jewish dating website), I gave in and joined five years ago. Since then, I went on more first dates than I did bar and bat mitzvahs in middle school—which is saying something: I went to a Jewish school and sometimes had to squeeze in two a weekend—and even surrendered my password to my mom, so she could take over my dating profile and match me with the mensch of her liking.

With all the experience I’ve had on that website, it’s my pleasure to hand over some of the top secrets I’ve learned that will help you spend less time browsing the website and more time meeting your potential future husband offline. Here are my top five tips to hacking JDate:

1. Tell the Truth
While we may not want to type out our entire life story on our profile, we do want to highlight four or five interesting facts about ourselves. These should be honest, fun tidbits of information that spark conversations and give the person messaging you an idea for an opening line or a first date. I took off the paragraphs of text from my profile and instead wrote about my love for live rock music, my habit for eating pizza more than five times a week, and my obsession with spending time at the local library.

2. Avoid Holidays and Late Nights
The worst times to search for love are on holidays and weekend nights. You’ll find that the website feels empty and the people crawling on it are usually looking for a quick hook up and not a relationship. The best time, and most popular time, to use the website is on Sunday or right after work on a weekday.

3. Make the First Move
We may be sitting back and waiting for our Mensch matches to message us, but if we want to be successful online, sometimes we are the ones who need to take the first step. If there’s a Nice Jewish Boy that catches your attention, reach out with a message and break the ice before your match (or their membership) expires.

4. Meet IRL ASAP
Avoid having the conversation linger online and instead make plans to meet in person as soon as you feel comfortable sitting across from the person in real life. If they seem to be dragging their feet on making a game plan, throw out an offer to meet for coffee on a weekend or a glass of wine on a weeknight.

5. Give People a Chance
After spending more time on JDate than I can count on my left hand, I have learned that often times the guys I like in person are the ones I’m not overly impressed with online. Most of the time, they didn’t do a great job putting up recent photos or describing their interests in detail online, but offline they are captivating and surprisingly the guys I look forward to seeing again. The guys who often woo me online are the ones, I find sometimes, are the most boring and unpolished offline.

Jen Glantz once wanted to become a rabbi but instead she became the world’s first professional bridesmaid and founder of Bridesmaid for Hire and the author of the new book, Always a Bridesmaid (For Hire). She’s the heartbeat behind the website The Things I Learned From and the author of All My Friends are Engaged. She spends a good chunk of her free time searching for a mensch who will look at her with the same kind of googly eyes with which she looks at pizza.

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Hidden in a Stash of Old Letters, a Grandfather I Never Knew

Monday, February 13, 2017 | Permalink

Georgia Hunter is the author of We Were the Lucky Ones, a novel based on her extensive research into her Polish Jewish family’s miraculous survival of World War II. With the long-awaited release of her book, Georgia is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Nine years ago on a rainy day in January, I sat down with a binder full of condolence letters my mother had saved after my grandfather died. I remember the day well, as I had circled it on my calendar as the one on which I would officially commit to unearthing and recording my family history. I was fourteen when my grandfather passed away, fifteen when I discovered he wasn’t raised in the States, as I’d assumed, but in central Poland—and that he came from a family of Holocaust survivors. I had thought for years about researching his story.This was the day, I decided, I would begin.

Paging through the letters, I read each one slowly, setting aside those that needed translating. Some were from old business acquaintances in places like France and Switzerland, others from friends in the music industry—my grandfather was a composer. Some were from nieces and nephews in Paris and in São Paulo, and one was from an ex-fiancée, Eliska, who met my grandfather in 1941 when they were both fleeing Europe.

I read and read, my throat tightening as I realized what an impact my grandfather had had on the people around him. His warmth, sincerity, and hard work inspired everybody who came into contact with him, one letter effused. He gave me a powerful message to make the best of things right now, no matter what, another read. The wonder of knowing someone as flamboyant as Eddy is a reward in itself...

Of all adjectives, I remember thinking, flamboyant wasn’t one I would have chosen to describe my grandfather. Quirky, perhaps—he used to insist that we speak French at the dinner table, and his house was filled top-to-bottom with things he built by hand. My most vivid memories, however, were of him at the end of his life, confined to his wheelchair; by then, Parkinson’s had taken its toll.

He was a remarkable man... I read on, of passion, excellence, wit, and talent, and we will miss him. And in a letter to my grandmother from my mother: Father influenced the way I see the world without much fear. The more I know others, the more unusual I find this outlook to be, and I will be glad if I pass some of this outlook on to the next generations.

I closed my eyes, searching for common ground between the man I remembered and the one described in the letters resting on my lap. My research, I realized, would not only involve uncovering his Holocaust survival story, but also the side of him I never knew.

Over the next several years, in a series of interviews with his closest family and friends, including a visit with Eliska, his ex-fiancée, I would come to understand the exuberant, fearless, never-take-no-for-an-answer Eddy Courts—or Addy Kurc, as my grandfather was once called. I would begin to see him for who he once was, and for how present he was, and still is, in my life today. Nearly a decade would pass before my research would be complete, but I’ll never forget that rainy day in January when I knew, without a doubt, that my grandfather’s was a story I needed to preserve.

Georgia Hunter’s essays and photographs have been featured in The New York Times, travelgirl magazine, Austin Adventures, and The Explorers Passage. She keeps a blog about her book and continued research into her family history at

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Martin Gang

Friday, February 10, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Glenn Frankel introduced MGM producer Dore Schary among the overwhelmingly Jewish history of the Hollywood Blacklist, the subject of his new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. Glenn is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

As I discovered in researching my book on the Hollywood blacklist and the making of High Noon, the blacklist tore Hollywood apart: it ruined careers, destroyed trust, and set families and friends against each other. Those who were identified as Communists, fellow travelers, or even as liberal activists had few choices. If called to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), they could either invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination—a strategy that ensured they would be blacklisted from further employment—or denounce their left-wing views and betray their fellow activists by naming names. Those willing to do so needed a lawyer to help them navigate the process. And none was better at it than Martin Gang.

A pillar of the Los Angeles Jewish community, Gang wound up representing more informers than any other Hollywood lawyer—by his own estimate, some twenty movie people and thirty more in other professions. His justification was simple: he was helping worthy but misguided people stay out of prison and keep their jobs. He claimed that his clients never initiated naming anyone, but simply confirmed names that the Committee already had obtained. His own duty, he solemnly declared, was to his clients.

Gang’s parents were Eastern European Jews who came to the United States in the 1890s, and he himself was born in Passaic, New Jersey, in 1901. After graduating from Harvard, he spent part of the 1920s studying economics in Weimar Germany. He watched the systematic destruction of the German middle class by inflation and open street warfare between Fascists and Communists. It made him suspicious of extremists of both political stripes and determined to appease the powers that be. When he returned to America, he earned a law degree from the University of California at Berkeley and made his way to Hollywood, where he eventually launched his own entertainment law firm. His list of celebrity clients included Bob Hope, George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Burt Lancaster, Lucille Ball, and Myrna Loy. He put up with their tantrums and their quirks. “Movie people are like everybody else, only more so,” he liked to say.

His first big blacklist case involved Sterling Hayden, a rising young star who had joined the American Communist Party for a brief spell after serving in World War II. Hayden was called to testify before HUAC in April 1951. Under Gang’s careful guidance, Hayden gave a full-throated condemnation of the party, praised the committee for its courageous work and named as Communists five people, including his former mistress. Years later, he expressed deep regret for his testimony. “I (felt) like a bear led on a chain by the lawyer,” he wrote.

After his success with Hayden, Gang began to serve as a bridge between the gentiles of HUAC and the Jews of Hollywood. He didn’t believe the Committee members themselves were antisemitic, but he knew there were plenty of irresponsible people compiling lists and making allegations about Jews. “I didn’t like the committee but I worked with it, because I had a responsibility to my clients and their lives,” he recalled.

Members of the Communist Party and those who sympathized often expressed contempt for Martin Gang. Rumor had it that Gang and his law firm made large fees off their political clients. (In fact, Gang plausibly claimed that his partners were not happy with his taking on these controversial cases, saying they made more enemies than friends and cost the firm between $50,000 and $100,000 in lost legal fees).

Gang was a man of great charm and bluster, but he sometimes lost patience with clients who refused to see the light. When screenwriter Carl Foreman resisted naming names, Gang warned that the government was preparing to reopen the concentration camp at Tule Lake, California, that had been built to detain Japanese Americans during World War II. Only this time, Gang warned, the detainees would be Leftists like Foreman. “He had set out to frighten me, and he did,” Foreman recalled.

(Still, Foreman refused to cooperate and hired a different lawyer.)

As usual in Jewish history, individual Jews responded in various and conflicting ways to the repression they faced. One response was Martin Gang’s: give the despot what he demands. Another was Carl Foreman’s, resisting for the sake of principle even at the cost of one’s own livelihood. What I love about studying history is that it always poses the same uncomfortable question to all of us: If faced with a similar terrible dilemma, what would we have done?

Glenn Frankel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, university professor, and author of High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic and The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.