The ProsenPeople

The ProsenPshat: Week of August 25

Saturday, August 30, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The Jewish Book Council webteam is launching a weekly recap of highlights from each week’s online content on www.jewishbookcouncil.org. Worried you might have missed something this week? Be sure to check our featured reviews page and scroll through The ProsenPeople blog!

Following up last week’s review of Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History, this week we published the Jewish Book Council’s interview with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s newest biographer:

The Rebbe might well be the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides. I can think of no other rabbi who is as familiar to Jews in Israel, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and France, the four most populous Jewish communities in the world today. So it certainly seemed that that this was a man whose life deserved to be studied in depth.

If you’d like to read about more seminal Jewish leaders, check out The Founding Fathers of Zionism, five essays by historian Benzion Netanyahu on Pinsker, Herzl, Nordau, Zangwill, and Jabotinsky—the great modern Jewish thinkers of their time.

Benzion Netanyahu’s historical examination of the original Zionists is replete with stories that detail the proverbial forks in the road when his subjects were faced with decisions that not only shaped their lives but dictated the future of the Jewish state and influences our future as Jews.

Netanyahu is a historian and his writing takes an academic approach, but what about when history and fiction meet? Pam Jenoff guest blogged as a Visiting Scribe on The ProsenPeople about how her career as a novelist began out of her experience working as a Foreign Service Officer at the United States Consulate in Krakow Poland—just after the Iron Curtain fell. She addresses the larger issues facing Holocaust fiction writers, questioning whether we should be writing stories set during the Holocaust at all.

I’ve written several novels set during the war now and it doesn’t get any easier. But I try to approach all of it with respect and dignity and I think readers respond to that. To me, each book is a love song to Jewish Poland, and the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

Writing about a particular moment in history is never easy. In the past week, we’ve been through our own moment of inexpressible horror and tragedy, for which we continue to struggle to find words. Joshua Fattal’s essay on Remembering Hebrew School in Iranian Prison out of The ProsenPeople archives was an uplifting read in the midst of the anxiety and anguish for the safety of American and international journalists, volunteers, and peacekeepers in the Middle East over the past handful of days alone.

In cell fifty-four in Evin Prison, Tehran, I saw a sliver of the sky through the glass window and the two sets of metal bars. From its position and size, I deduced that it was waning and that it’d be a new moon in a few days. It was September and I believed that the coming new moon signified Rosh Hashanah.

Our hearts weigh heavy from events at home this week, as well. As Thursday marked the anniversary of both the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the heinous torture and murder of Emmett Till, the Jewish Book Council reissued its reading list on Justice, Civil Rights, and Race Relations as tensions and violence continue in Ferguson, MO and throughout the country.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 29, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Pam Jenoff on the Jews of Poland Today

Friday, August 29, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Read Part I: Living the War here and Part II: Writing the War here.

I speak to Jewish audiences across North America about by experiences and books. One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is: What about the Jewish community in Poland today? Some people are surprised that there is a community, while others want to know about what their lives are like and whether there is anti-Semitism.

Candidly, I don’t know about the current situation from a first-hand perspective. When I left Poland in 1998 there were a few thousand Jews. The first rabbi had just been brought back to Krakow. Every milestone was big – the return of a Torah, a single Jewish baby being born. Every death was a major tear in what was left of the community. (I only saw my father cry twice in his life, and once was outside the Remuh Synagogue in Krakow when they pulled him in to complete the minyan.)

It has been 16 years since I left and I know from friends and from reading that the Jewish community in Poland is stronger than at any point since the Second World War. There are multiple rabbis and a new Jewish Community Center funded in part by Prince Charles. The sense of “last Jew out of Poland switch off the lights” is largely gone. I don’t believe that Krakow will ever be Brooklyn or Cherry Hill again, but it is like a Jewish community in the Midwest or Deep South, small but enduring.

There are reasons for the Jewish community being stronger now: I credit the Jews who stayed through the dark years of communism (many of whom had the chance to leave) and organizations like the Lauder Foundation that have invested in revitalizing Jewish life throughout Eastern Europe. Important, too, was the property restitution law passed in 1997, giving the communities back their synagogues, cemeteries, and buildings (which they can use or else rent or sell and use the proceeds to help their people). I also think anecdotally that there has been an influx of Jews from points farther east where no viable Jewish community remains.

Of course, there are challenges. I believe that progress on Jewish issues stalled after Poland entered NATO and that was no longer available as a carrot. After 9/11 the world’s focus shifted away from Eastern Europe and many issues remain unresolved. And ironically the greatest struggle for the Jews of Poland today may be themselves: different groups in Poland’s Jewish community are fighting with one another over property and control of assets. (It is painful to watch these struggles among a people whom I love and adore, that should be standing strong together; it's like seeing relatives fight.)

Anti-Semitism in Poland is a harder question. I lived there openly as a Jew for 2 ½ years without incident. The Jews I knew in Poland live their lives in relative peace, without the threat of terrorism Jews face in Western Europe. As Rabbi Jonah Ornstein, Executive Director of the JCC in Krakow wrote in a recent article, “It is easier, safer, and better to be Jewish every day in Krakow. I do not know of any other community leader in Europe who can say the same about his or her community.”

I came out of my years living in Krakow with a reasonably pro-Polish view for the people and what they suffered, an occupied country that lost so many of its own of people during the war. (Not always the most popular view: an observer at one event commented that when I spoke positively of my time in Poland, the Hadassah ladies with their questions seemed intent on making me cry.) But I recognize the complicit role of Poles in the centuries of anti-Semitism that preceded the war, in atrocities like Jedwabne and in acts after like the Kielce pogrom. I also recognize that there are more Poles listed as Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem for helping Jews than any other nationality. I wonder what I might have done as an ordinary Pole: would I have been strong enough to help?

At this point in my talk, someone always raises his or her hand and tells a story of some young person on the March of the Living who encountered graffiti or a slur from a local near Auschwitz. I bite my tongue not to point out that if I saw hundreds of teenagers in blue jackets marching down the street of my small town and singing, I’d be nervous too. But in all seriousness, part of the issue is that these groups too often just visit the camps and leave. I urge people who go to meet locals and build bridges. Because we may never agree about what happened in the past, but I think that the key is to engage the younger generation.

Many Jews will never be able to make peace with Poland. But I’m brought back to an answer I once heard an Orthodox rabbi from Britain give when asked why he kept going back: “Because our people were in Poland there for 800 years and because it is our patrimony.”

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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Pam Jenoff on Writing the War

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Earlier this week we featured Part I: Living the War, which you can read here.

I came back from my years in Poland profoundly changed by what I had experienced. I knew I wanted to write a book about my time in Poland. And not just any book; I knew it would be a novel. How did I know? Because I was one of those little kids who always wanted to be a writer, scribbling down stories and showing them to anyone who would listen. And it was never short stories or poetry, always novels.

I took a course at Temple night school called “Write Your Novel This Year” (seriously) and began to write. I began with a scene of a young woman crossing Krakow’s main market square with a small child during the war. As I wrote, I discovered that she was a Jew in hiding and she was protecting this child of great rabbinic lineage.

Then the most serendipitous thing happened: I was on a train from Washington to Philadelphia when I met two very well-known Holocaust survivors, man and wife. (I’ve never publicly named them because the man has since passed on and I never got to ask if he minded.) I was telling them about this novel I was writing set during the war, and the woman said, “Surely you know the story of the Krakow resistance.” I stopped, dumbfounded. We all know the story of the Warsaw uprising. But I had just come back from two and a half years of living in Krakow, working on Holocaust issues, and I had never heard of the Krakow Jewish resistance. I went back to Poland for more research and I was amazed to discover a rich history of Jewish uprising on the very streets where I had lived and worked (a history which is largely unknown, since virtually everyone who was a party of the resistance in Krakow perished during the war.) This true story of the Krakow resistance became the inspiration for my first novel, The Kommandant’s Girl.

Even after honing my topic, the actual decision to persist in writing a novel set during the war so did not come easily. I wrestled with a huge sense of inadequacy for the subject I was addressing. I remember watching Band of Brothers (which I consider the finest thing ever put on film) and there was a scene where they were liberating the camps, and I thought, “Who am I to be writing dinner parties and scenes at the symphony, when such atrocities were taking place 60 kilometers away?” Because, I concluded, such merriment really did persist during the war, and showing that is part of painting the bigger picture.

There is, of course, the larger issue of whether we should be writing stories set during the Holocaust at all. I’m often asked at talks whether by fictionalizing the Holocaust, we are feeding into the Holocaust deniers. I think just the opposite: that by not telling the stories we would be stifling the dialogue, which is exactly what the Nazis would have wanted.

Once one decides to write a book set during the Holocaust, there is the huge question of “getting it right.” This means both the details of historical accuracy (readers armed with Wikipedia will surely let you know if you haven’t) and also bigger questions of portraying different peoples and their roles.

For this latter question, there is no right answer. Take, for example, the question of the Poles during the Holocaust. In my work, I try to show the gray areas in people: the Jews in my book are flawed, the Germans are real people and the Poles are good and bad and between. As a result, I get e-mails saying I’m too hard on the Poles and e-mails saying I’m too easy on them. You get the idea.

I’ve written several novels set during the war now and it doesn’t get any easier. But I try to approach all of it with respect and dignity and I think readers respond to that. To me, each book is a love song to Jewish Poland, and the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe.

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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Book Cover of the Week: Bespotted

Wednesday, August 27, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

We loved seeing everyone's pictures of and with their canine friends for National Dog Day this week! Dog lovers and Disney fans alike will adore this new book from Counterpoint Press, out next week:

Bespotted: My Family's Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians by memoirist Linda Grey Sexton is a beloved children's film come to life, the story of how a new litter of puppies impacted a New England family and inspired the Pulitzer-winning poetry collection by Anne Sexton (the author's mother), Live or Die.

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Faith and Fiction: This Jewish Woman’s Journey to Becoming a Novelist

Monday, August 25, 2014 | Permalink

In this three-part series for the Visiting Scribe, internationally bestselling novelist Pam Jenoff explores how her years in Poland changed her life and led her to writing books. Her most recent book, The Winter Guest, is now available.

Part I: Living the War

I did not go to Poland to work on the Holocaust. A first tour Foreign Service Officer, I was sent to the U.S. Consulate in Krakow, Poland in the mid-1990s to stamp visas and passports, and help U.S. citizens who were arrested or hospitalized or otherwise in trouble. But I found myself in a unique moment in history: Poland had just come out of decades of Communism, where issues remaining from the Holocaust—important questions of anti-Semitism, property restitution, and preservation of the concentration camps—had been unresolved because open dialogue was suppressed and exchange between east and west was cut off during the decades following the war. These issues needed to be resolved for political reasons in order for Poland to join NATO and the European Union.

I’d arrived in Poland, a young woman alone in my early twenties, half way around the world and truly isolated in a pre-cell phone, pre-internet universe. So I did what any nice Jewish girl would do: I gravitated toward the surviving Jewish community; I went to shul on Friday night (and it was Orthodox, a huge education for this girl raised in a suburban Reform community) and to the rabbi’s house for cholent on Saturdays. The elderly Holocaust survivors became like grandparents to me. And the U.S. Consulate, seeing my natural affinity for the people and issues, said “You handle Polish-Jewish issues.” (We were only eight Americans; it wasn’t terribly formal.)

So for the next two-and-a-half years, that became my job. When Elie Wiesel was upset about well-intentioned Polish boy scouts putting up stars and crosses on a field at Birkenau, I went there to try and resolve the issue. When then-First Lady Hillary Clinton wanted to tour Auschwitz, I spent a week there with the Secret Service. There were many difficult conversations about who had done what during the war. But there were rewarding moments too, like seeing the first property restitution law passed and bringing together Polish and American school teachers to talk about how to teach the Holocaust to their students.

My own life in Poland was similarly conflicted: on one hand, practicing as a Jew in Poland was rewarding, defiant in the face of what Hitler had tried to do. Despite the vast shadows, I could feel the Yiddishkeit on every street. But the war was so proximate, that in order to take my car to the mechanic, I had to drive past the camp in Schindler’s List. And you may be prepared to tour the gas chamber once, but what toll does it take on your psyche when you walk in for the 50th time? For me, the constant challenge was how to live life with the appropriate solemnity for what had happened there, but not see everyday as a graveyard.

I came back from my years in Poland profoundly changed by what I had experienced and I knew I wanted to write a book about it. Not just any book – I knew it would be a novel.

In my next post, I will talk about how my years in Poland led me to becoming a novelist.

Pam Jenoff is the internationally bestselling author of six novels, including The Kommandant's Girl. Her latest is The Winter Guest, which will be published August 26, 2014. A graduate of GWU, Cambridge and Penn Law, Pam formerly worked at the Pentagon, as a diplomat for the State Department and as an attorney. She lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three children where, in addition to writing and speaking, she is on the faculty of Rutgers Law School.

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The ProsenPshat: Week of August 18th

Saturday, August 23, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The Jewish Book Council webteam is launching a weekly recap of highlights from each week’s online content on www.jewishbookcouncil.org. Worried you might have missed something this week? Be sure to check our featured reviews page and scroll through The ProsenPeople blog!

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street is Susan Jane Gilman’s new work of fiction about an injured Jewish-Russian immigrant who transforms herself into a tasty treat tycoon. Set in the early-through-late twentieth century, the novel incorporates events and issues of the time: immigration, Jewish assimilation, women’s rights, poverty, the World Wars, McCarthyism, youth movements, the Reagan administration…


Want more insight on the book? Read the Jewish Book Council’s interview with Susan Jane Gilman (ahead of its printed publication in Jewish Book World!) on The ProsenPeople. The author shares her inspiration for the novel, how and why she built its heroine, and her delicious research into the history and production of ice cream in the United States!


Another fascinating insight into an author’s research comes from Jessica Lamb-Shapiro on the Visiting Scribe series this week. In her posts detailing the creation of Promise Land, her study of America’s self-help culture and industry, Jessica recounts her revelatory experience regressively confronting her mother’s untimely death as she muddled through the initially impersonal research. Be sure to check out her book: it’s remarkably witty, informative, and deeply touching. And how can you resist that kitten hanging on the front cover?


Another book not to be missed: Ayelet Waldman’s newest historical fiction, Love & Treasure. The mystery and love story surrounding a peculiar locket transcends time, hurtling across moments in history.


This week’s nonfiction highlight? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s new biography of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History. Drawn from the Rebbe’s private correspondence, Telushkin’s newest work is a rich and illuminating portrait of this remarkable man who was a devoted spiritual leader and tireless counselor, controversial advocate for women’s rights and community openness, and an accomplished scholar.


If Rebbe has whetted your biography appetite, read up on theater and film legend Stella Adler in Stella! The Mother of Modern Acting by Sheana Ochoa, with a forward by Mark Ruffalo. This incredible woman not only mentored and coached the likes of Marlon Brando, Robert de Niro, Shelley Winters, and Peter Bogdanovitch, she served as a gunrunner for the Irgun!


The past couple weeks in the United States have spurred discussion about American Jews' role and responsibility in justice and civil rights causes. Watching events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, we have updated our reading list of adult and children's books on Justice, Civil Rights, and Race Relations.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 22, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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Interview: Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Friday, August 22, 2014 | Permalink

by William Liss-Levinson

William Liss-Levinson, member of the Board of the Jewish Book Council, sat down with fellow Board member and noted author, scholar and speaker Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, to discuss this newest book, Rebbe, focused on the life and teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

William Liss-Levinson: A number of books have been written in the past few years about the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And it’s twenty years since his death. What prompted you to write this book?

Joseph Telushkin: The Rebbe might well be the most well-known rabbi since Maimonides. I can think of no other rabbi who is as familiar to Jews in Israel, the U.S., the former Soviet Union, and France, the four most populous Jewish communities in the world today. So it certainly seemed that that this was a man whose life deserved to be studied in depth.

WL-L: You’ve also chosen a unique approach, to discuss the Rebbe—according to thematic issues across time, with a fifty page chronologi­cal biography at the end. Why did you choose that approach to his life?

JT: I thought that what most mattered about the Rebbe were his viewpoints and his unique approach to a variety of issues. Also, I really was interested in writing a biography of his years of leadership. In 1951 he took over a small movement and turned it into the most dynamic religious movement in modern Jewish history—and that is what intrigued me; how he did it. A biography would need to focus in detail, for example, on things I was not as interested in: his years as a child in Russia and the years he spent in Germany and France in university. I was interested in that, and write about it in the book, but this was not what most interested me about the Rebbe

WL-L: How did you gain access to the materials for your research?

JT: Thirty volumes of the Rebbe’s letters have been published—Chabad is not secretive; they really want the Rebbe’s teachings to get out to a more general readership. And while this was not an authorized biography and Chabad had no editorial control over any of the book’s contents, they did give generous access to the very people who could give an account of things the Rebbe did or said. I had to work very hard to research this biography, in part because the Rebbe was not the sort of person who spoke often about himself or his life experiences; he re­ally said very little about himself.

WL-L: What surprised you the most about his life, as you researched it?

JT: One of the surprising things about the Rebbe, given his strong opin­ions on various matters, was the degree to which his decisions, as his secretary Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky told me, were not “cookie-cutter;” he always tailored his advice to the individual in front of him. For example, because of the secular and often anti-religious orientation of many university faculty, he was generally opposed to a college education for his followers (at least at the age that most people go to university), but there were instances in which he approved it, and many instances in which he urged people to finish their degrees. It really depended on the circumstances and the person in front of him.

WL-L: What do you believe is the lasting legacy of the Rebbe?

JT: One way to assess a leader, perhaps the most important, is to look at what happens to his or her movement after the leader’s death. The remarkable feature of Chabad is that subsequent to the Rebbe’s death there has been a remarkable expansion in the movement—more than tripling in size. There are Chabad houses now in forty-eight of the fifty states and in eighty countries. This is a phenomenon, and one that was totally unexpected when he died, when many people thought that the movement would greatly contract. Also, some of his unique approaches which I think defined him as a leader and which I think continue to de­fine the movement: his unconditional love for Jews, his use of optimistic language, his commitment to expressing disagreement without being disagreeable. And of course, the Rebbe’s most enduring achievement are the 4,000-plus couples, shluchim, who represent his vision through­out the world—and this accounts for Chabad’s enduring success.

William Liss-Levinson is vice president, chief strategy & operations officer of Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., a consumer health research, information, and publishing company. He holds a Ph.D. in education and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Book Council.

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Yahrzeit

Thursday, August 21, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro wrote about writing a book on self-help. The book, Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Religion kept coming up in my research into self-help. Some religious texts were used as self-help (there is even a self-help edition of the Bible). Books like The Power of Positive Thinking (1954) combined self-help and religion to popular effect; so did forgotten titles like Pray Your Weight Away (1929). A conference I went to led by the author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books had the feeling of a tent revival. I often saw self-help referred to as “America’s religion, ” and at times I wondered if self-help, for some, had taken the place of religion.

My own ties to religion were weak. My grandparents had been religious Jews, but my father was an atheist. He even asked the Rabbi (also his brother-in-law to be) who performed his and my mother’s wedding ceremony not to mention the word G-d. As a result, my contact with Judaism was largely cultural: holidays spent with my grandmother, foods l loved like matzo brie and brisket.

If someone had asked me if I was Jewish, I would have said “yes,” but we had lost contact with most of our traditions, rituals, and history. My father wrote self-help books and was a child psychologist, and I think he believed we could figure out everything we needed for ourselves. He was wrong.

After my mother took her own life, my father was so angry and upset that he stopped talking about her. I was only two years old, and wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I was never taken to visit her grave, or taught how to grieve for her. By the time I was twenty-six, I felt completely lost. That summer, the week of the anniversary of my mother’s death, I broke down completely.

My paternal grandmother was the opposite of pushy, the kind of person who just wanted everyone to be happy, but for once, she intervened. Her confession: Every year, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, she told me, she burned a yahrzeit candle. My grandmother never told my father or me that she observed this ritual because she didn’t want to upset anyone. Yet, counter-intuitively, once I was given a way to grieve, I stopped feeling upset. From that year on, I have always lit a yahrzeit candle for my mother on July 27th. The ritual comforts me, and gives me a way to remember her. I light one for my grandmother too now, both to remember her and to remember the time she returned to me a tradition I didn’t even know I’d lost.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, and The Believer. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, NY. Read more about her here.

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