The ProsenPeople

What I Learned About Woody

Monday, November 30, 2015 | Permalink

David Evanier recently authored an unofficial biography of Woody Allen, and will be sharing what he learned about the famed comedian and director all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

When I started writing my biography of Woody Allen in 2012, a writer I hadn't heard from in years wrote me excitedly, “Tell! Tell!” I wasn't sure I got her drift, so I wrote back asking her what was it exactly she wanted me to tell. She wrote back, “I was shocked! Shocked!”

Many years before she had sat at a table next to Woody's at Elaine's. She told me that he was seated with two other male friends and they were talking about sex and women. (Not that she was eavesdropping, of course.) Well, I wrote back gently that my life experience has been that when guys get together, this is a pretty normal topic of conversation for us. That was the end of our correspondence.

When I began Allen’s biography I decided that I would drop in on Woody and tell him about my book and also make it clear that I wasn't writing the sort of thing that my shocked correspondent hoped for. So I rang his doorbell. I held a letter in my hand for him. A staff member looked down at me from the upper balcony and told me he'd be right down. He took my letter, smiled and said “Perfect.”

Well, that was nice, I was in. Not quite.

Allen answered me the next day. And many times more, while stating again and again that this was not an authorized bio. And it isn't. That was even better from my point of view, since I did not want anyone peering over my shoulder checking what I was writing. This turned out well, especially since he really was a mensch, answering my emails (pleading with me not to leave more letters at his house) and finally meeting with me at the end.

At the start I was only a prying stranger to him and he responded warily, especially since he was committed to another biographer—I would come to learn that he is deeply loyal. And how many requests of this kind had he received over the years?

He bristled at my praise of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Zelig in that first letter. He was concerned that I would praise him for all the wrong reasons. He is extremely self-critical and certain he has never written a masterpiece on the level of a Rosselini, Fellini, or De Sica. As a true artist, he doesn't care about his past work or about how his work is reviewed. He cares only about what he is doing now and what he will do next. Yet he answered me, again and again, and cared about my struggles as a writer.

His achievements—46 films in 46 years, with a wide range of subject matter, from laugh-out-loud funny to poignantly, startlingly moving—are almost Shakespearean. Allen is a classic storyteller, not abstract or cerebral. He gives everything to his films, even the lousy ones. His continuity and high rate of productivity are unprecedented. He may be the most amazing phenomenon in the history of American show business. He has created indelible films that will stay with us the rest of our lives. And in all of these films Allen has been the writer, director and actor.

What did I discover about Woody in writing my biography? His boyhood pals from Brooklyn told me what a trickster and prankster he was, and that he was even funnier in person than he was on screen. His mother was hyper-emotional and orthodox; his father was a happy-go-lucky, good-time Charlie who played the numbers, was a gofer for Albert Anastasia, and carried a gun.

Allen is not a shlepper at all; he is a totally concentrated, focused writer with an indefatigable work ethic. He lives for his writing. He has said that “Writing is culmination, it is being wholly alive.” He is not doing it for the money: “Money in any way has never been an issue with me,” he wrote me. He has never taken the big, controlling money that would kill him as an artist. He never stopped paying his former manager, Jack Rollins, or crediting Rollins in his films, although Rollins had retired many years ago. Rollins had been Woody's mentor in the beginning, urging him to do standup comedy. Allen was terrified of performing, and Rollins was always by his side, not even taking a commission from him. That was the sort of thing Woody never forgot.

David Evanier was the founding editor of the literary magazine Event and the former fiction editor of The Paris Review. Now publishing his eighth book, he has received the Aga Khan Fiction Prize and the McGinnis-Ritchie Short Fiction Award.

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Thane Rosenbaum

Monday, November 30, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Thane Rosenbaum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, How Sweet It Is!, The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, The Golems of Gotham, Second Hand Smoke, and the novel-in-stories, Elijah Visible, which received the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for the best book of Jewish American fiction. He is also the author of three books of nonfiction, including The Myth of Moral Justice. His articles, reviews and essays appear frequently in many national publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and the Daily Beast, among other national publications. He is a Distinguished Fellow at New York University School of Law where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society. For more information visit


30 Days, 30 Authors: Elana Maryles Sztokman

Sunday, November 29, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, and leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator and activist. She specializes in gender inclusion in the Jewish world, and has worked with communities, organizations and individuals around the world on advancing gender inclusion and gender equity In August 2015, she founded The Center for Jewish Feminism to provide resources and connections among Jewish feminists around the world. Elana is also a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council award, and the former Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. She writes and speaks all around the world about gender issues in Jewish life, in education and in Israel, and blogs at


30 Day, 30 Authors: Liel Leibovitz

Saturday, November 28, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a contributor to several publications, including The Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and others. He is the author or co-author of six books, and holds a PhD in communications from Columbia University. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, the author Lisa Ann Sandell, and their children.



The Origins of the Undo List

Friday, November 27, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Christopher Noxon shared the beginnings of his journey from “doing Jew” to being Jewish and the profound importance he found in ritualized rites of passage for young adults. He has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

I started observing Shabbat fifteen years before I formally converted to Judaism. It began, as these things so often do, with bossy grandparents: my wife’s parents hosted dinner Friday nights and would start bugging us on Tuesday to bring the kids over. Jenji’s mom cooked like a school lunch lady and the rush-hour drive across LA wasn’t exactly nourishing to the soul, but I began feeling a real loss when we didn’t make it. Shabbat was a marker, a reset button.

Even though I wasn’t Jewish and had no plans at the time to convert, I liked the “island in time” that Shabbat represented and was curious about creating boundaries that would allow for rest and recharge. I read Abraham Joshua Heschel and began to appreciate the value in dedicating one day a week to slowing down, connecting and checking in with oneself and loved ones. No way was I ready for traditional prohibitions on driving, spending money, or using the phone—but I loved the spirit behind being shomer Shabbat and wanted to create some version for my family and self.

If the idea behind Shabbat was to wake us up, to remove whatever interferes with our appreciation of what’s truly important, I didn’t have to look far to identify the biggest source of distraction.

Our family spends an inordinate—but hardly unusual—amount of time looking at screens. Smartphones, laptops, desktops, TVs, video games—our lives are largely lived in digital space. We work, shop, socialize, study, relax, play—all connected to some sort of device. Our kids have grown up like this—but Jenji and I remember when life was lived offline in three dimensions, or as the kids say, IRL (“in real life”).

This would be our family’s version of Shabbat: one full day IRL.

For us that meant no TV, no email, no social media from sunset Friday to sundown Saturday. Using the phone is okay, we decided, as are movies in a movie theater—but for us, the goal was to stay away from any screens that isolate us from one other and the world around us.

The kids weren’t thrilled about it, and both Jenji and I would sometimes cheat (no one can see you on your iPad when you’re on the toilet!), but I think we all came to appreciate screen-free Saturdays. We had a few amazing “reading parties” splayed out on blankets on the front lawn with dogs, games, and bowls of grapes. We planned outings with friends to places in the city we wouldn’t have visited otherwise—Watts Towers, the Self-Realization Fellowship gardens, waterfalls in the San Gabriel Mountains…

Next we started marking Saturday sundown havdalah around our backyard firepit with a song, a big cup of wine, and a satchel of scented cloves. The traditional elements were nice, but havdalah only came alive after we took a suggestion from my friend Rachel to start a family practice called “take forward, leave behind.” Each member of the family names things from the past week we want to continue (laying off carbs, say, or getting to bed before midnight) and discontinue (texting in the car, fighting with siblings).

Excited by our progress, I joined up with some friends and started an online newsletter called The Undo List, offering tips and inspiration for others observing a weekly “Tech-Free Sabbath.”

Here, with some reinterpretation and experimentation, was something truly useful, an ancient practice given a modern spin that made our lives better.

Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Details and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.

30 Days, 30 Authors: Leslie Kimmelman

Friday, November 27, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Leslie Kimmelman is the author of more than two dozen popular and award-winning picture books for children, many with Jewish themes, including Everybody Says Shalom, The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah, and the Sam and Charlie series. She works part-time as a children's book editor at Sesame Workshop and lives with her family near New York City.


Interview: Geraldine Brooks

Friday, November 27, 2015 | Permalink

with Ranen Omer-Sherman

In her latest book, Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks sets herself the daunting challenge of portraying one of the most heroic yet morally troubling figures in the entire corpus of Jewish literature. She shared her experience researching, concocting, and writing The Secret Chord: A Novel with Jewish Book Council.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: What struck me most in reading The Secret Chord was the ambitious work that you do with women’s voices and interiority. They are all such distinctive and engaging characters, each with disparate emotional and intellectual responses to their circumstances. How challenging was that aspect of writing the novel?

Geraldine Brooks: For many years before I became a novelist, I covered the Middle East as correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and I found myself returning to those experiences—not just to the locations—as I thought about this novel. Especially, I drew on those memories as I considered the vivid stories of David’s wives. Women in the Old Testament don’t tend to get much ink. Many of them barely get a name. Lot’s wife… Gladys? Noah’s wife… Maude? We don’t know. And that’s both remarkable and dispiriting. Yet David’s wives do have names, and they have distinct personalities and backstories. But they are sketches, merely, told in a few lines, and always from the male point of view—from the perspective of their impact on David; of what it was like to be them, nothing much is said. So I wanted to flip the point of view, and look at events through their eyes. These women lead precarious lives in a society that gives them no evident power and few rights. David’s wives have to duck and weave and improvise to stay alive, to have say in their marriages, to stop their husbands from making mistakes likely to get them killed, to secure a future for their children. So many of the works of scholarship on David take the Bible at face value when it comes to the women’s stories: Mikhal is unfailingly portrayed as spoiled shrew, Bathsheva as a scheming temptress.

If you apply a woman’s point of view, neither interpretation is plausible. So I thought about women I had reported on, women like Queen Noor in Jordan and Ayatollah Khomeini’s wife in Iran. As I thought about Bathsheva at David’s deathbed, maneuvering to get her young son Solomon on the throne, I thought of Queen Noor at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, as King Hussein lay ill with cancer. Somehow, it was Noor’s young son who was named crown prince, second in line to King Abdullah, ahead of many older brothers by Hussein’s former wives.

And then there was Mikhal, who became David’s first wife. Her father, King Shaul, was ambivalent about the marriage. That reminded me of a strange afternoon when I was invited to tea by Ayatollah Khomenini’s widow. She told me that day how she had managed to marry a guy who was then an impoverished religious scholar with no prospects. Khadijeh was just a girl, fully veiled in her chador, when she took in the tea tray and managed to catch a glimpse of her would be suitor, the young Ruhollah Kohmenini. She liked that glimpse, but her father said no, he wasn’t good enough. So, that night, she had a dream. In the morning, she told her father that she had seen Ruhollah meeting with all the great prophets of Islam. It’s probable that 99.9% of Iranians don’t know Khomenini’s wife’s first name. And yet she was immensely powerful in shaping the Iranian revolution. So, there were plenty of lessons about how you wield private power in a society that publicly barely acknowledges you.

ROS: Your portrayal of the prophet Natan is extraordinarily compelling, delving into the strange psychology and interior landscape of the Biblical prophet as a figure of moral conscience, his perpetual loneliness and sense of apartness in spite of being in the very midst of things. Did you find that particularly difficult to achieve?

GB: I relied heavily on the wonderful exegesis by Abraham Heschel in The Prophets. His characterization of them (“some of the most disturbing men who ever lived[…] facing man, faced by God”) really shaped my thinking as I tried to create a character and a backstory for Natan. There are givens: the ferocious bravery of such a person, the willingness to speak truth to power, the unsettling nature of the one who stands outside, but sees inside. I also wanted to leave the door open a crack for the reader: since Natan is the narrator, and he clearly believes his own role as the “hollow reed”, is he a reliable witness to his own gifts and powers? Is he a reliable narrator? That’s why, at points, I have other characters in the novel express skepticism about his visions and their purpose.

ROS: I found your depiction of the ancient landscape wholly convincing, a truly immersive environment. You have mentioned spending some time hiking with your son (and herding sheep) in the Judean desert and so on, but was there more research involved?

GB: For the sheep herding, we were at a Biblical reserve in the Shefala, founded by Ben Gurion, where the flora and fauna have, as far as possible, been returned to the species that prevailed as described in Biblical times. We spent a long afternoon there. We also went to a Bedouin settlement where you can experience a tent encampment not so very different from the living conditions of David’s outlaw years. We visited archeological digs to get a more accurate sense of the material culture of the Second Iron Age—what was a palace in those days? What was a house like? What did they eat and drink? My IDF contact got very enthused about the project and actually conducted some of his own site visits, for which I am exceptionally grateful.

The imaginative challenge in my writing was de-populating the landscape, since only 45,000 people are thought to have lived in the area conjecturally associated with David’s kingdom, opposed to some four million or more in that same area today. I also had to mentally re-vegetate it: the Ottomans had a tree tax, so massive land clearing happened under their occupation in that era. In David’s time there were expansive forests and lots of fauna, including lions!

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30 Days, 30 Authors: Katja Goldman and Lisa Rotmil

Thursday, November 26, 2015 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! In honor of the 90th anniversary of Fanny Goldstein's tribute to Jewish books in the West End's branch of the Boston Public Library, Jewish Book Council invited 30 leading authors, one for each day of the month, to answer a few questions.

Katja Goldman is known as the unofficial challah teacher of the Upper West Side, having taught literally hundreds of men and women to bake challah. She co-authored the Empire Kosher Chicken Cookbook: 225 Easy and Elegant Recipes for Poultry and Great Side Dishes. Katja was a co-founder of Yivo’s Food as Roots program and is very active in Jewish Communal life. Katja was also a co-founder of the Slice of Life Bakery in Cambridge Mass, the executive chef for Barclay Bank and she has appeared on network television and in publications nationwide sharing her recipes, creative cooking and culinary arts. She holds a B.S. from Simmons College in Boston and an RD from Brigham and Women's Hospital. Katja is married to Michael Sonnenfeldt. They have 4 children and live in New York City.

Lisa Rotmil has a Ph.D in art history from The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the Pierpont Morgan Library and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She became an avid cook in middle school when she became responsible for cooking dinner for her family. She previously co-edited "Gather 'Round the Table," the community cookbook of The Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City. She also has an interest in design and recently contributed to the design of the Ronald P. Stanton Campus of the Heschel School. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband, Alex, and her two daughters.

After graduating form Pennsylvania State University and Columbia University School of Social Work, Judy Bernstein Bunzl worked for The American Joint Distribution Committee. Between 1980-1992, Judy and her husband Nick Bunzl lived in Milan and London. While in London their two daughters, Alexandra and Natasha were born. Choosing to be a stay-at-home Mom and taking care of her family, Judy threw herself into volunteer work, organic vegetable gardening and cooking. Having studied cooking in Milan, London, New York and anywhere she found herself, her interests in all three vocations came together with the publication in 2015 of the cookbook, The Community Table, Stories and Recipes from the JCC Manhattan, written together with Katja Goldman and Lisa Rotmil.


Everyone Wants to Be Invited

Wednesday, November 25, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Christopher Noxon shared his journey from “doing Jew” to being Jewish. He is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Growing up, whatever spiritual yearnings I had were satisfied by Star Wars. My best friend Jimmy was an altar boy who prayed to a spooky guy on the cross; I was good with Obi-Wan.

The first Jewish ritual I ever experienced was my friend Michael Landsberg’s bar mitzvah. The service was long and boring, but afterward there was a chocolate fountain and a live disco band.

At the time I my parents were divorced and I lived with my mom and her girlfriend Pam. Besides being committed feminists, they were spiritual seekers who did consciousness-raising retreats in the Sequoias. There was talk in our house of the “cosmic muffin.”

So I complained: “How come Michael got a bar mitzvah and all I got was a green t-shirt with the text of the Equal Rights Amendment?” I think Robert Bly and Iron John had been in the Utne Reader that month, because mom got to work creating a YOUTHHOOD RITE OF PASSAGE RITUAL.

A few weeks later, mom and Pam took me out to a friend’s beach house in Zuma and we did this whole thing –I have dim memories wearing some kind of robe while candles were lit, bongos were beaten, and long silences were observed. Mom made up a scroll with calligraphy on parchment.

And then we went skinny dipping. Me, my mom and Pam, jumping in the black-bottom pool. Because that’s what you did in 1981 with your two moms.

In the end, my rite of passage hadn’t been all that different from Michael’s. We both had our scrolls. And like Michael, we got pictures—he got a portrait of himself wearing a wide-collared tan suit and staring out the window of Wilshire Blvd Temple… and I got a photo of myself, crouching next to a stone bunny rabbit, wet and butt naked.

Which only reinforces for me that even in its most humiliating, fuzzy-headed, woo-woo form, the rite-of-passage ritual is a good thing. It’s affirming. It’s important. I’m glad my moms did it for me.

When my two oldest kids reached adolescence, I was happy to support their bnei mitzvah. But while I was happy to send them to Hebrew school organize the party and otherwise buy into the bar mitzvah industrial complex, I was deeply dissatisfied with the traditional route.

Friends with teenage kids agreed: the usual routine had become rote, stale and superficial. And so, on a big group camping trip a few years ago, we invented a supplementary ritual. All it took was a bunch of guys, some shared wisdom, and a gorilla suit.

On our first day at the camp, I charged out of my cabin in full gorilla getup. I grabbed hold of a 13-year-old kid who had just been bar mitzvah-ed and escorted him up a nearby bluff, where all the men sat cross-legged in a circle. We proceeded to go around and share “secrets of manhood.”

The secrets ranged from the practical to the profound. One guy talked how hardship creates character. An electrician advised Isaac to “always buy real estate.” Someone said that, “when you’re out on a date, always let a woman through the door first. You look gentlemanly and you can check out her tuchus.”

But the thing I remember most was a friend who whispered, “Everyone wants to be invited.

The kid liked it and the men did too and we’ve done it three times since, most recently with a mix of boys and girls and a giant chicken costume.

Who knows? Maybe Good Life Gorilla or the Wisdom Chicken will catch on and thousands of teens will one day know the terror of being kidnapped by their elders in animal costumes. None of the “secrets” we’ve shared have been revelatory, but there’s something profound about even the promise of learning a forbidden thing. It’s all about what that guy whispered at the first circle: “Everyone wants to be invited.” Being pulled aside by the adults, singled out and invited into a new world, told you belong in an actual community—that’s a huge part of what coming of age is really about.

Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in the New Yorker, Details and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.

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Book Cover of the Week: The End of Days

Wednesday, November 25, 2015 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Looks of concern and alarm were exchanged around the office when managing editor Becca spontaneously exclaimed, "Oh good, the End of Days has arrived!" Then we saw what she meant.

The End of Days is an award-winning bestseller by German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, newly translated into English by Susan Bernofsky and released in the last couple weeks from New Directions Publishing. The novel is comprised of five distinct stories following the same protagonist at different stages of her life in twentieth century Europe, each leading to a different untimely death.

The book cover designed by Rodrigo Corral for this English edition is genius: the vintage green cloth binding gives the impression that the volume is from long ago, discovered on a grandparent's bookshelf or in dusty shop of yellowing, old titles; the stark letters and floral embossing catches the reader's eye, obscuring at first glance that they take their shape around foretelling tombstone. Chilling, enticing, and beautiful, The End of Days's design unquestionably suits the contents of the book.

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