The ProsenPeople

Uh, Five Reasons My Book Was a Year Late

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Marjorie Ingall wrote about stepping out of ghostwriting to write her first book since 1998. With the publication of that book, Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children, Marjorie is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeople.

1. I did a metric ton of research. When I was in college, I dealt with my fear of writing papers by exfoliating. Through an excellent and protracted skin-care regimen, followed by the ritual cleaning of the dorm room and doing laundry until 4:00 AM, I worked myself into enough of a last-minute panic that I could actually sit down to write. This is not a great strategy for a 47-year-old woman. So I dealt with my anxiety by doing more and more and more research. I was convinced that once I knew everything in the entire world about everything in the entire world, the book would flow out of me like sweetened condensed milk out of a dorm fridge after my roommate’s stash tipped over.

2. I was terrified of writing in my own voice. As a ghostwriter, I found the very notion confusing. How scholarly should I be? How much of my funny blogger (www.sorrywatch.com) voice should I use and how much of my journalism voice? Who the hell was I? Since I could not decide, my first draft was both late and terrible. My best friend, a novelist, told me I sounded unable to own my authority. She pointed out that I kept defaulting to other people’s words to drive my own points home. I quoted big wads of academic texts. I sourced everything multiple times. I sounded pretentious, uncomfortable and stilted. “You can be self-deprecating while still sounding confident and erudite,” she told me gently. It took a long time for me to relax into that advice. Perhaps paradoxically, I had to learn to sound like myself.

3. Deadlines! When you’re writing a book, deadlines are fake! Sure, you can put arbitrary due dates for each chapter in your calendar, but when you’re writing articles that have to be filed every week, or magazine stories that have to come in on time or no one will ever hire you again, you know that book deadlines are stretchy and fungible. Also, book payments come in very slowly. Payments for one’s regular gigs come in more quickly. One deludes oneself about what one should be doing at any given moment.

Also one needs to check Facebook and Twitter constantly.

4. The state of publishing. I went through three editors and two publicists (at last count) over the course of working on Mamaleh Knows Best. Chaotic times, changing industry. My first editor was a Member of the Tribe with a small child, and her editorial questions seemed targeted to readers like her. My second editor was the parent to much older children and was not herself Jewish; her primary interest seemed to me to be broadening the book’s readership. Finally, I was accustomed to writing celebrity books, which are not, shall we say, heavily edited. So I was surprised to get detailed, passionate editorial notes on each chapter. The part of me that came of age writing for women’s magazines was a people-pleaser and wanted to do everything the editors suggested; the part of me that had a specific vision for the book (a blend of social history, folklore and mythology, humor, theology and parenting, high culture and pop culture) wanted to push back. It was uncomfortable. My second editor was frustrated by my harping on Philip Roth; I knew I wasn’t doing a great job explaining why his work was essential to understanding the weight of the Jewish mother stereotype, but I couldn’t accomplish what I wanted to. (My editor was also horrified that I desperately wanted to keep a paragraph about Portnoy’s foodstuff-related masturbatory habits, comparing them to the pastry penetration in American Pie. “Why is this here?” she kept demanding. “This will turn off your reader completely!” Ultimately, I decided that a discussion of Jewish men ejaculating into comestibles was not the hill I wished to die on. In the end, there is perhaps less Philip Roth in my book than there should be, but fewer people will gag while reading it, so I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.) Ultimately, editing made this book much, much better. And shorter: I cut 20,000 words from the second draft. Everyone says “editors don’t edit anymore,” but this was not my experience, and no lie, I’m glad.

5. Who is this book for? How Jewish should it be? How much knowledge should I assume the reader has? Am I talking about Jewish parenting now, or Jewish parenting in different eras of history, and what the hell is the difference? As I wrote and revised, I felt I was tap-dancing like crazy to reach readers of many different backgrounds. (My favorite review so far is by a popular, very critical Goodreads reviewer who is not Jewish and has no children— the fact that she enjoyed it will make me feel good to my dying day, ptui ptui ptui.) The wrestling act made the writing act take much longer than I’d expected. And I’m sure the book will frustrate yeshiva-bred readers for whom not enough material is brand new, as well as goyish readers who feel it is too dang Jewish. Here, for example, is a story that was left on the cutting room floor because explaining Purim to the uninitiated made it take too long to get to the punchline:

Back when my daughter Josie was four, she was playing Queen Esther with my mom. Josie liked to dress in a tulle skirt, sunglasses, and multiple strands of Mardi Gras beads and plastic leis; then she’d line up her stuffed animals on the couch and sit primly at one end of the line with her hands folded. Whichever family member she’d force to play Ahasuerus had to go down the line and interview each stuffed animal about why it deserved to be his queen. My mom would always try to keep the process from focusing purely on looks—even though that’s what the actual text does—because she wanted Josie to think about qualities more important than physical appearance. Mom would play an Ahasuerus looking for qualities like kindness, generosity, patience. Anyway, once Mom asked Josie, “So, Esther, what qualifies you to be my queen?” Josie looked at her like she was a moron and said, “I have the skirt.”

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The Forward (where she was The East Village Mamele), Real Simple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glamour, Self, and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

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Book Cover of the Week: These Are the Names

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I've been haunted by Tommy Wieringa's These Are the Names since picking up an advance copy last month. The original edition of the Dutch novel deservedly won the 2013 Libris Prize, but before I knew that or anything else about the book the the cover alone instantly captured my attention:

Of course, once I opened its pages I was spellbound by Tommy Wieringa's masterful (and eerie) storytelling. These Are the Names balances the mundane and the mysterious between two seemingly inharmonious stories—the famine-swept journey of a pack of wanderers trekking thought the Eurasian wilderness and a solitary policeman's investigation into the death of a rabbi, leaving only one other Jew remaining in their reduced border town—without ever striking a discordant note.

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A Ghostwriter, on Being Visible

Monday, August 29, 2016 | Permalink

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist, ghostwriter, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children. In honor of the book’s release tomorrow, Marjorie is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeople.

I’m a ghostwriter. This week, a book comes out with my name on it—just mine. It’s the first book I have written as myself since 1998.

I feel naked.

To me, ghosting is infinitely more comfortable than writing a book as me. I love channelling someone else’s voice. It feels like a game. You talk to the person for as long as the person will let you (for some celebrities, that’s not long) and try to emulate their speech patterns and sense of humor. It’s wearing a Halloween costume, in book form! You treat the subject as a research project: find out as much as you can about their life so you can ask probing questions; try to make their story relevant to as many people as possible. Make them likeable, even if they’re not. (And let me head this off at the pass: No, I can’t tell you for whom I’ve written books, speeches, articles and blog posts, because then I’d have to kill you. That joke is never funny, but it’s really all one can say on the subject, non-disclosure agreements being what they are.)

Another reason I like ghosting so much is that I’ve spent so much of my career writing in the first person. I started in women’s magazines, which prize a confessional we’re-all-just-pals voice, perhaps as a way to seem unscary and sisterly. Even though I often wrote about health and science, I was still supposed to begin every story with a personal anecdote. It can feel both formulaic and invasive, putting yourself into a story where you really don’t belong. Getting to write a whole book and reveal nothing of myself was, in comparison, a huge relief.

Not everyone is so sanguine, though. When my older daughter was in first grade, I spoke to her class for Career Day. The teacher informed the class that Josie’s mom was a ghostwriter, and they got so excited they were almost vibrating. This was because they thought I wrote about translucent haunting spirits from beyond the grave. They were visibly disappointed to learn otherwise. One bright boy was more than disappointed – he was outraged. “So you wrote the book, but your name isn’t on the cover?” he sputtered. “That’s so unfair!” I explained that I got paid, and the arrangement was totally fine with me.

“But… it’s a lie!” he said. “People think someone else wrote the book, because it says someone else wrote the book, and you’re both lying!”

He wasn’t wrong. Most of us know that celebrities don’t write their own books, but we all participate in the fiction that they do. It’s a kind of collective self-hypnosis. Guess what: politicians don’t write their own op-eds or speeches, either. Though presumably after Melania Trump’s RNC debacle, more of us than a year ago know about the role of speechwriters in the performative, presentational game. (And presumably after Donald Trump’s original Art of the Deal ghostwriter publicly turned on him, more people understand how book ghosting works, too. For what it’s worth, I’m in a private support group for ghostwriters in which we talk about our projects and challenges, and most ghosts are utterly horrified by the notion of spilling the beans about clients. It’s akin to doctor-patient privilege. If you’re appalled by the client, don’t take the job.)

My new book, the one that I’ve written as me, is a book that combines social history, theology and parenting. It’s a look at the Jewish mother stereotype: a character that seems almost as malevolent to most of us as a ghostwriter does to a first grader.

But ghosting, I think, was oddly good practice for writing the book I did. An excellent ghostwriter encourages the best aspects of their client to shine through. The work of ghosting is self-effacing, but not self-negating; you need to be assertive to write the best book possible, and that means gently directing the client in the way they should go. The ghost also needs to be sure everyone—self, client, editor, and agent(s)—gets heard. If you’re going to be a good ghostwriter, you have to set up and manage expectations before you leap. You and the client both have to honor your commitments.

That’s what good parenting is, too. It’s not all about you; it’s about the next generation. (It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see, as Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote while pretending to be Alexander Hamilton.) It’s about being nurturing without being spineless. And despite the caricature of the Jewish mother as a neurotic, narcissistic, self-dramatizing human pressure cooker, the historical Jewish mother has done a tremendous job in raising kids who are both accomplished and kind.

Accomplished and kind is what we want to pretend our icons are, but it’s more important that we raise our real-life children that way in the real-life world.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The Forward (where she was The East Village Mamele), Real Simple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glamour, Self, and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

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New Reviews August 28, 2016

Sunday, August 28, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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In Whose Image? Maimonides Among the Portraits of Lawgivers

Friday, August 26, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Zev Eleff wrote about religious disputes in American advice columns and how social media is impacting Modern Orthodox Judaism. He has been guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

In 1951, Congress moved back into the United States Capitol, displaced for more than a year to repair a poorly constructed iron ceiling. The renovations provided a chance to attend to a number of key updates: installation of better acoustics, improved lighting, and a state-of-the-art air conditioning system. Far less practical but considerably more symbolic was a set of 23 engraved plaques, the Portraits of Lawgivers, hanging on the walls above the doors of the House Chamber.

The Lawgivers required a studied opinion. The Architect of the Capitol and a Philadelphia-based firm assembled teams at the University of Pennsylvania, the Columbia Historical Society in Washington, D.C., and the Library of Congress to help select the subjects for sculpture portraits: “personages who were, relatively or marginally, prototypes during history of activities being conducted in said House Chamber.”

The outcome of this assignment tells a lot about how Americans viewed their intellectual underpinnings at the middle of the twentieth century—and the subtle politics of this important space offers much to consider for our own time.

The Capitol’s criterion eliminated founders of religion. “Perhaps Jesus Christ should be included in the list of an avowedly Christian Nation in a legislative hall in which each of its sessions opens with Christian declarations,” reasoned the Washington group, but there was “some feeling that Jesus Christ is too exalted a character to be included.” The same sort of logic nixed Buddha, Confucius, and Muhammad.

The final list of Lawgivers chosen to inspire the House was well-rounded but still well-ensconced in classical intellectual traditions. Thomas Jefferson and George Mason represented the Americans. The balance was composed of ancient Greeks and Romans, and the men (no women were picked) typically associated with the legal foundations of Christendom.

Still, the list also demonstrated an effort to include figures of other religions, very much in line with postwar Judeo-Christian sensibilities. Suleiman the Magnificent represented the Islamic world while Judaism received a pair of Moseses—the prophet Moses and Moses Maimonides, the Sephardic physician and legal codifier of the twelfth century. Of course, other religions claimed Moses of the Bible; Maimonides (or any other Jewish legalist), on the other hand, was something of a surprise. In preparing its list of lawgiving candidates, one of the appointed teams was underwhelmed with the Jewish choices, concluding that the “Hebrew system has been given undue credit—too much for too little.”

Most members of the House applauded the plaques and their religious inclusivity. Some, though, were nearly impossible to please. John Rankin, for example, “objected to all the foreign lawmakers except Moses.” Reportedly, the Southern Democrat from Mississippi would have replaced them with Confederate heroes like Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Then again, this was typical of Rankin: years earlier, in response to Albert Einstein’s calls to cease all ties with Hitler’s allies, the Mississippian, an antisemite and all-around bigot, dismissed the Nobel Prize physicist as a mere “foreign-born agitator.”

Nativists like Rankin found it more challenging to get their way in the postwar period. Save for the anti-Communists, peoples of all types gained relatively stronger footholds in the United States. In the particular case of religion, popular writers like Will Herberg convinced millions of Americans that Catholics and Jews were equal shareholders with Protestants in the nation’s religious-cultural foundations. In this time, the number of Muslims in the United States was small, but gestures like the House Chamber’s Lawgivers indicated that this religious community was also on the minds of thoughtful Americans.

The Lawgivers sculptures also reveal another quality of postwar cultural openness. Amid pressure to shed distinctions in the American Melting Pot, religious and ethnic groups persevered and placed considerable value on retaining their own cultures and symbols.

Consider the Moses Maimonides plaque. Brenda Putnam sculpted the rabbi of Islamic Cairo. The noted sculpture artist and scion of an important American family, Putnam was eager to etch Maimonides in the image of the increasingly more recognizable American Jew. To do so, she wished to place a yarmulke atop Maimonides’s head rather than a turban or nothing at all—two more accurate possibilities for an Egyptian Jew in the High Middle Ages.

In the United States, few Jews adorned the religious skullcap outside the synagogue, but it was one of the best known attire-sensitive identifiers of this religious group. Putnam queried rabbinical scholars whether there was any chance that Maimonides might have worn a “small cap such as you and your colleagues wear.” To plead her case, the artist admitted that “I should like to add this small, recognizable insigne—not only because it adds distinction and a decorative line to the design, but because it would make him the more readily identifiable to the thousands of visitors in the galleries.”

But Maimonides did not resemble America’s Jews, nor other Americans. In the end, Putnam relented. She sculpted the rabbi with Arab headgear, a more approximate head covering than the yarmulke. Her decision—as well as the selection of a religiously diverse set of law codifiers—confirmed that national identities and legacies were complex concepts. What is more, the individuals chosen to hang above America’s top legislators did not need to appear all that similar to the women and men debating on the floor below.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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Book Cover of the Week: Fascinating—The Life of Leonard Nimoy

Thursday, August 25, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I always have an eye out for good books for young Jewish readers—stories that break the mold of what we consider "Jewish children's literature" and introduce interesting ideas along with evocative imagery that appeals to the artistic sensibilities of kids and adults alike. Combine those qualities with my love for all things Leonard Nimoy, and you can see why I'm excited for Richard Michelson and Edel Rodriguez's new illustrated biography:

Accessible to readers of all religious or Trekkie affiliations, Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy delivers strong Jewish content without overpowering the universal story of first-generation achievement in the United States. Exploring Nimoy's childhood in Boston's West End, Fascinating depicts the assiduous actor's decision to take on his iconic half-Vulcan role in light of the alienation his parents experienced as American immigrants from Iziaslav—reflected in the cover illustration of Mr. Spock's profile superimposed with the face of young Leonard.

Intrigued? Richard Michelson will share more about the book as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople over the first week of Elul—the week after next!

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The New Digital Discourse and Modern Orthodox Judaism

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


In May 1969, Rabbi Norman Lamm published an essay on “Modern Orthodoxy’s Identity Crisis” in a magazine circulated by the Orthodox Union. His mission was ambitious: to identify and grapple with the struggle of modern Americans who were concomitantly committed to Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Lamm also offered some salience rather than musings. The essay transformed Rabbi Lamm and Modern Orthodox Judaism into a movement marked by stability and rooted identity.

Of course, Rabbi Lamm did not do this alone. Young women and men—many of them, first-generation day school graduates—joined in, and revitalized Orthodox Judaism in the United States. He also benefited from a respectful form of Orthodox discourse. Differing points of view were welcomed as essential elements of a more wholesome conversation. In 1965, the editors of the Rabbinical Council of America published an article authored by Dr. Eliezer Berkovits in the pages of its journal despite the the fact that “most of our Editorial Board disagree with the views expressed in this essay.” Rather than reject the paper, the Orthodox rabbinical organization included it as a marker of communal “revitalization.”

The maintenance of informed and diplomatic public conversation is essential, particularly in anxious moments of tumult. Lately, talk of an “identity crisis” within Modern Orthodox Judaism has resumed. By and large, the discourse takes place in the arena of social media. It is therefore an undaunted conversation. It lacks a moderator and moderation. The rightist wing refers to a “crisis” as it writes off an outmoded “ideology [that] is murky and vague.” The leftists allude to the same crisis, characterizing it as “trying times for Modern Orthodoxy.”

Both sides rehearse similar revisionist histories. Invariably, these sorts of writers and bloggers cite Dr. Bernard Revel, an early president of Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, considered Yeshiva University’s most important historical figure. Their conclusions typically call for change, a Modern Orthodoxy defined by “approaches that came straight from the greatest of European yeshivos” or a vision intended to be, frankly, “something new.” The middle-of-the-road outlook is not too often considered. Further, these kinds of expositions rarely engage the primary sources. They lack texture and nuance, draining the past of all its color and creativity. In the end, these writings are the stuff of polemic; not the language of constructive discourse.

Still, there is more to it. Increasingly, Orthodox Jews turn to social media to take part and read blogposts, articles, and comments on the gripping religious issues of the day. These are the forums in which many Orthodox Jews obtain religion, though an informal type. For many, Facebook and Twitter have emerged as sacred spaces to acquire Judaism and Jewish content. Of course, the synagogue and other important cultural centers still offer much, but these “traditional” institutions compete with digital venues that are always open and are constantly uploading new content. In most cases, it is hardly a contest—after all, the rabbi’s sermon is only a weekly occasion, and adult education classes simiarly must fit into some sort of restrictive schedule. By contrast, Facebook threads are timeless, untethered, and hyperlinked.

Relevance and promptness have assumed unprecedentedly precious qualities of religious commodities. Owing to this, rabbis and educators take to the Internet for this very sort of relevance. The savviest among them upload their sermons and author blogs. These women and men recognize that to be someone of consequence they must become a part of the online conversation.

There is an alluring and democratizing aspect of Facebook. The elites—the most educated, title-holding lot—no longer have so much control. Social media is a dialogue—not a monologue, after all. Consider Daniel Rosenthal’s recently polemical tract, Why Open Orthodoxy Is Not Orthodox. In his tirade against the Orthodox Left, the author marshaled loads of extra-academic evidence that amounted to 487 footnotes: the lion’s share of these citations were drawn from Facebook and YouTube. In one exercise of social media arithmetic, Rosenthal actually counted the number of times a Facebook post was “liked” by members of a particular Orthodox group.

Of course, there are drawbacks to the new mode of discourse. Most notably, this sort of unhinged conversation tends to introduce historical errors and oversimplifications. The Modern Orthodox community is far from unique in its embrace of online media as a primary form of discourse. Similar trends are evident in other Jewish communities, and within other religious spheres. Modern Orthodoxy is also not the only one undergoing a so-called “identity crisis.” It is, however, the one that I can best help—that’s why I authored Modern Orthodox Judaism.

Featuring more than 180 texts and images, this documentary history seeks to equip the present digital dialogue with a sturdier foothold within the sources. The anthology aims to restore sophistication and nuance to the new discourse. Far from claiming to offer the final say on any matter, the user-friendly commentaries and annotations are meant to bolster a more informed conversation. For instance, the material on Orthodox Judaism’s parting of the ways with Conservative and Reform, the role of rabbinic authority and the place of women in stations of leadership are crucial. These subjects are pertinent to the classroom, the synagogue pulpit, Facebook and wherever else we may strike up an intriguing conversation on the past and future of Orthodox Judaism in the United States.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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Orthodox Judaism and its Conversion to the Cult of Compartmentalization

Monday, August 22, 2016 | Permalink

Zev Eleff is the author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. He is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


In July 1984, Ann Landers penned a response to a woman in Dallas who had had enough of her newly Orthodox children. The letter-writer, the irritated “Not Kosher Enough for Our Children in Texas,” complained that her son and daughter-in-law had recently “embraced the Orthodox Jewish religion,” a decision that had taken a step toward family divisiveness and generated “ill will.” The Dallas woman found it terribly offensive that her son refused to eat in his parents’ home, even though “I wouldn’t dream of serving shellfish, bacon or ham or pork”—iconic non-kosher items. Nor would he answer the telephone on the Sabbath, leaving the concerned mother to wonder whether a protocol was necessary if “God forbid, there were a tragedy in the family.”

In truth, the seventy-year-old Texan confessed that she could get past the dietary and Sabbath restrictions. More than anything else, she worried about the idiosyncratic behavior of her “born-again” Orthodox children and grandchildren. First, her daughter-in-law tended to serve gastronomically challenging foods. “When we eat at their house the food is so heavy it gives us heartburn and indigestion,” she told the renowned advice columnist. Second, the whole Sabbath leisure experience appeared to her somehow un-American: “They just sit [at] home and do nothing. No TV. No cards. Nothing.” Third, she feared for her grandchildren, who she imagined would “be considered peculiar by their friends” as they got older.

In response, Landers (née Eppie Lederer) empathized with “Not Kosher Enough.” By no means an observant Jew herself, Landers freely offered that while the dietary laws made sense “thousands of years ago before refrigeration,” they do not anymore “seem logical.” More to the point, Landers reported that she had consulted with a Conservative rabbi in Chicago, who recommended that in a conflict between two Biblical commandments, “Honor Thy Father and Mother” outranked the dietary laws. In other words, the Dallas matriarch had every reason to insist that her children follow the Americanized path of their parents and social milieu. The Sabbath, she reasoned, should still be treated as Saturday, like in all other American households.

Landers’s message was apparent: in Judeo-Christian America, religious communities were supposed to conform to those red-white-and-blue values. In 1955, Will Herberg’s best-selling Protestant-Catholic-Jew had convinced millions of Americans that all three of these religions served as steaming pots intended to boil out all of the hyphenated descriptors and extraneous culture that got in the way of becoming truly American, and Landers’s advice resoundingly echoed this sentiment.

Orthodox leaders would have objected to the columnist’s recommendation. The application was off, and furthermore encroached upon the rigid standards of Jewish law. Yet the idea probably resonated with many Orthodox Jews who sought to blend traditional Judaism with basic American values. Armed with a strong philosophical underpinning, these folks pushed for middleclass refinement, advanced education for young women and men and a healthy embrace of high- and middlebrow culture. Whenever and wherever possible, they would have it, Orthodox Jews should endeavor to synthesize the best of Judaism and America.

But not everyone agreed. Landers’s advice troubled Rabbi Pinchas Stolper of the Orthodox Union, pragmatically and philosophically. As the former director of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY), Stolper had made a career out of convincing religiously uninitiated young people that Orthodox Judaism offered great substance to life. As one of the many pied pipers of the growing “Ba’al Teshuva Movement (literally, “Master of Repentance”),” Stolper could testify to the thousands of Jews who had “returned” to Orthodox Judaism. He therefore dashed off a private note to Ann Landers to dispel her notions of all-or-nothing Americanism. He told the popular columnist of the countless Jews who “observe the Sabbath” and the “tens of thousands more [who] have joined their ranks.” No doubt, Stolper’s numbers were exaggerated but this mattered little in his quiet polemic. “Not using the phone, the car or the television on the Sabbath is one of life’s greatest blessings,” he wrote. “What could be more rewarding and relaxing than one day off from the technological barrage, the slavery to gadgets, the noise and babble of the media?” Stolper also had had some choice words for Landers’ correspondent in Texas:

The lady says that “they sit at home and do nothing. No TV. No Cards. Nothing.” TV and cards are “nothing” even on a plain Tuesday—on the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews enjoy festive family meals, rest and relaxation, prayer, reading, good conversation, Torah study, visits to neighbors—it is a day of rest, joy and spiritual elevation. As for lights and air-conditioning, that’s all on automatic clocks like any good modern establishment. As to heartburn and indigestion—some Jews enjoy eating heavy foods—but this has nothing to do with the kosher laws. I know Orthodox Jews who are “veggies,” “health nuts,” and all the rest.

In a way, Rabbi Stolper had banded together with other smaller religious and racial groups in the United States who, in the 1980s, argued for a multicultural outlook. These advocates suggested that hyphenated identities like “Mexican-American” or “Jewish-American” were hardly inconsistent with the prevailing culture in the United States. This view rejected the postwar “melting pot” notions of the American personality, believing it too stifling of narrow. This argument was what sociologist Charles Liebman described around this time as “compartmentalization.” Orthodox Jews, observed the social scientist, tended to separate areas of their lives that could not, in their view, be synergized. To the contrary, men like Rabbi Stolper won over adherents on the supposition that it was perfectly feasible and acceptable to compartmentalize rather than synthesize.

In the final analysis, claimed Stolper, “where there is love, caring and good will there is no reason why the children and the parents cannot keep each other happy without breaking any of God’s laws.” No doubt, his recommendation came from a good place and was indicative of the success of the Ba’al Teshuva Movement. It also signaled, however subtly, a sea change in mainstream Orthodox Jewish philosophy—one with unsubtle implications.

Zev Eleff is the chief academic officer of the Hebrew Theological College, Chicago. He is the author of five books and over thirty scholastic articles. His book Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History was recently published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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New Categories and Honors for the 66th National Jewish Book Awards

Thursday, August 18, 2016 | Permalink

Celebrating its 66th year, Jewish Book Council is pleased to announce two new developments for the National Jewish Book Awards. Starting this year, a new category focused on book clubs has been added to the program: The Debby and Ken Miller Book Club Award, dedicated to promoting Jewish continuity for the next generation, will recognize outstanding work of fiction or nonfiction that inspires meaningful conversation about Jewish life, identity, practice, or history. The award recognizes the power of books to inspire Jewish community and thought-provoking discussions.

Additionally, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry is newly named the Berru Award in Memory of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, dedicated to honor the memories of Ruth and Bernie Weinflash, who were respected leaders in their Northern New Jersey community for over 50 years. A dynamic couple with both substance and style, Ruth and Bernie Weinflash were not just avid readers but were astute critics, honing in on what spoke to both them as well as the world at large.

The National Jewish Book Awards are presented at a celebratory gathering each spring, following the publication of the books under consideration. The evening includes a dinner and ceremony for the winning authors and is attended by the authors and leading names in Jewish publishing and literature.

The National Jewish Book Awards program began in 1950 when the Jewish Book Council presented awards to authors of Jewish books at its annual meeting. Past notable literary winners include Chaim Grade, Deborah Lipstadt, Bernard Malamud, Michael Oren, Chaim Potok, Philip Roth, Elie Wiesel, Jonathan Safran Foer, Deborah Dash Moore, and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.

Today, the National Jewish Book Awards honor exceptional Jewish literature in over 20 different categories annually. Guidelines for submission and the online application, which must be completed by October 7, 2016 to qualify for this year’s nominations, can be found on Jewish Book Council’s website to submit a book for this year’s awards. Please contact njba@jewishbooks.org with any questions regarding submissions or reservations for the spring ceremony.

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The Chuppah: What’s Happening Underneath?

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 | Permalink

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff’s new book, Will Jew Marry Me? is a great selection with the Jewish celebration of Tu B’Av on the horizon. Rabbi Hajioff is guest blogging for Jewish Book Council asa part as the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Of all the traditions we have in Jewish life, the one I believe is full of the most meaning yet is the least understood and appreciated is the ceremony that takes place under the chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. The bride and groom will spend months preparing the right hall, caterer, band, and dress for their big day, but many times they give little thought to the aspects of the ceremony itself. I wasn't pleased with this, so before I perform a wedding ceremony, I always invite the couple to join me in learning what is actually go on under the chuppah.

I also use treat the chuppah ceremony itself as a teaching moment. I ask couples if they are okay with me giving very brief explanations of various parts of the chuppah as they happen. Nearly all couples are delighted at the opportunity of having their guests appreciate the customs of the chuppah and not have to sit through another boring Jewish ceremony. Invariably I’ll receive positive feedback from the people in the audience, and quite surprisingly the people who enjoy the ceremony the most are often non-Jewish guests who, in most cases, are experiencing a Jewish wedding for the first time.

When writing my book Will Jew Marry Me? I decided to add a chapter outlining some of the beautiful and ancient customs we perform under the chuppah. Here are a couple of highlights:

The Chuppah

The Chuppah is a public display that the bride and groom are now becoming husband and wife by symbolizing the home the couple are about to build together.

If the chuppah represents the Jewish home, wouldn't it make more sense for the chuppah to have four walls like any regular home? Instead, the walls are removed and four poles hold up Chuppah canopy. This design comes to remind us of the original Jewish couple from the Bible, Abraham and Sarah. We are told that Abraham and Sarah lived in a tent. Although in their day people were living in stone structures, despite being very wealthy Abraham and Sarah decided to live in a more portable structure so they could keep moving around to different population centers. They did this so they could fulfill the incredible mitzvah of hachansat orchim, welcoming guests into their home. It was for this reason they kept their tent open on all four sides, so that passing travelers traveling from all directions knew they were welcome into the tent of Abraham and Sarah. Jewish couples recreate this tent at every wedding to reimagine themselves as the first-ever Jewish couple, opening their homes to the needy.

The Wine

Wine is used as part of the ceremony at many Jewish lifecycle events, and the chuppah is no exception. (White wine is generally used under the chuppah, since red wine could stain the brides dress, which is never a good thing!)

Wine represents change. An eight-day-old baby boy at his brit milah, or ritual circumcision (often called a bris), is given wine, as he is about to enter into the Jewish covenant. We welcome in the Shabbat with wine, as the week is changing from the mundane to the holy. On Passover we drink four cups of wine as we celebrate the change the Jewish people went through from slaves to free people. Under the chuppah, the wine represents the bride and groom’s transition from single to married.

Why is wine chosen for this—why not water, orange juice, or coffee? Well, we like wine! But furthermore wine itself contains within it the greatest change: at one point the grapes sat on the vine basking in the sun, before they were plucked, and crushed. An outsider would wonder why such a beautiful thing as a grape would be given such harsh treatment. However after tasting the result of the crushing in the delicious wine it produces, we understand that the suffering the grape had to endure was truly worth it.

Relationships are the same. We go from our single, independent lives into the sometimes challenging environment of sharing every part of our lives with another person. For many people this can be an extremely challenging transition. The wine teaches us that the grape is wonderful on the vine, but through some challenge and a little pressure, an even greater life awaits it in the future.

Rabbi Lawrence Hajioff is the author of Jews Got Questions? and Will Jew Marry Me?: A Guide to Dating, Relationships, Love, and Marriage.

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