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Bernard Malamud at 100: The Wrong Writer for Our Age

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | Permalink

by Boris Fishman

This essay appeared in somewhat different form on the website of The Center for Fiction.

Bernard Malamud (1914-1986) is the wrong writer for our age. Today’s young fiction writers live in an Age of Me: Memoirists in novelist clothing, we understand the world by understanding ourselves. Malamud was the son of a Brooklyn grocer who fled tsarist Russia. Having come of age during the Depression, the same era that shaped his contemporary Saul Bellow, Malamud wrote about Them: The unadjustable Old World elders who were his milk at home and his giveaway when Malamud was trying to make himself an American out of it; the Christians who seemed as general in America as they had been in the Pale (The Assistant); the inexplicable blacks, who seemed to suffer just as the Jews did but saw in it competition rather than kinship (The Tenants).

Malamud’s concerns were as broad as God’s world would allow: God’s Grace was about thermonuclear war. They were just as grave when he looked in a man’s heart: The Fixer, which, in 1967, won a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize both (one of only seven books in history to have done that), stands with William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner as the great American testament of a sufferer’s discovery of himself.

It is these qualities that give the lie to the usual grouping Malamud receives, alongside Bellow and Philip Roth. (Invariably, Malamud gets the bronze.) Malamud’s concerns sat poorly on Bellow; the latter broke through as a novelist only after he sang the hymn of the American Me in Augie March. Philip Roth, the son of entirely different times, has done his most conscientious work in nonfiction. Until the end, Malamud’s concern was morality; he wrote as if from a deathbed.

As the literary critic Philip Rahv put it: “[A] ‘Jewish’ trait in Malamud… is his feeling for human suffering on the one hand and for a life of value, order, and dignity on the other. Thus he is one of the very few contemporary writers who seems to have escaped the clutch of historical circumstance that has turned nihilism into so powerful a temptation; nihilistic attitudes, whether of the hedonistic or absurdist variety, can never be squared with Malamud’s essentially humanistic inspiration.” Rahv points out, in comparing Malamud with a fabled predecessor, “The feeling for human suffering is of course far from being an exclusively ‘Jewish’ quality. It figures even more prominently in Dostoevsky. The Russian novelist, however, understands suffering primarily as a means of purification and of eternal salvation, whereas in Malamud suffering is not idealized: suffering is not what you are looking for but what you are likely to get… Dostoevsky ’s correlative idea that ‘we’re all cruel, we’re all monsters’… is quite alien to Malamud.”

The writer Aleksandar Hemon, an admirer of Malamud, wondered, during a 2008 New Yorker podcast about the older author, whether it is this that accounts for Malamud’s downsized position in our times, which seem more devoted to dazzle and irony. I am far more devoted to Malamud than the times, then. For Rahv, Malamud is an heir to “Kafka’s moral earnestness in his approach to the making of literature, of which he conceived as a sacred expenditure of energy, an effort at communion with his fellow men, the reflected splendor of religious perception.” That is the kind of literature that I, as a starting novelist, wish to inherit.

Unlike Bellow and Roth, Malamud did not feel parochialized by the label of Jewish-American writer. “I’m an American, I’m a Jew, and I write for all men,” he told The Paris Review in 1974. “A novelist has to, or he’s built himself a cage. I write about Jews, when I write about Jews, because they set my imagination going… I was born in America and respond, in American life, to more than Jewish experience. I wr[i]te for those who read.” In other words, if you write stories of universal predicaments, that the characters are Jewish rather than Zulu is, in some ways, a technicality.

No one has written of those universal predicaments as movingly as Malamud. His work epitomizes the writer’s first lesson: Only the specific can hope to speak universally. Malamud’s heroes – Dubin, Lesser, Levin, Fidelman – usually wear only last names, for they are Everymen grappling with existential quandaries (what is love? how to make sense of one’s obligations to family?) that would hardly surprise that hypothetical Zulu. Importantly, though, they are not Everymen, that is, types or symbols – they are Dubin, Lesser, Levin, and Fidelman, with all the stubborn particularities of those individual lives. And their preoccupations are submerged in richly detailed, realist narratives. But their quandaries are so basic and essential that one might as well be reading a myth. Malamud’s style contributes to the feeling: Through endless rewriting Malamud removed every extraneous word – and then another. Philip Roth poked fun at this in The Ghostwriter, where an alter ego of Malamud’s says: “I turn sentences around. That's my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again.” However, the result is stories that have been reduced to essentials, like liquid in a pan, with such force that the bedrock that remains feels like parable. Malamud wrote fairy tales for grown-ups.

And so, arguably no age has needed him more, for it is brains, technique, and self-interest that we young novelists, and our generation, own in excess; and heart, vision, conscience, and discipline where we lack. We must lift our heads from our navels and try to measure the world; we will find Bernard Malamud holding out a ruler to help us. I owe the publication of my first novel in no small measure to Malamud’s extended hand. In the late fall of 2012, I was at an artist colony in southeastern Wyoming working through the umpteenth draft of the novel, about a failed young journalist in Malamud’s Brooklyn (that is, the unfashionable part) who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for those very same elders with whom the author had tried to reconcile himself.

I had read most of the author’s oeuvre by then, leaving only The Tenants and Dubin’s Lives, two books, one about Brooklyn and the other about rural Connecticut, that couldn’t have had less to do with my setting at the time. But Malamud built the bridge. Every morning, I would trudge in the piney, astringent cold to my writing studio and take an hourlong hit of Malamud before sitting down to my own work. I had to ration: the books had to last the month. The draft that I, an Old World Jew in the New West (which also hosted Malamud when he taught at Oregon State from 1949-61, the basis for his novel A New Life), finished under Malamud’s tutelage was the one that got me a contract with HarperCollins.

I couldn’t have been happier to learn recently that I am wrong at least in some of my concerns about Malamud’s decline. This year, the Library of America is commemorating his centennial with the publication of a compendium of his work. (On May 1, I am hosting a kind of 100th birthday party for “Bernie” at The Center for Fiction in Midtown Manhattan, featuring a diverse set of admirers, such as the novelists Tea Obreht, Bharati Mukherjee, Kevin Baker, and Alan Cheuse, as well as members of Malamud’s family.) The two volumes offer a rare opportunity to re-acquaint oneself with the work of a true master.

If you are looking for a place to begin, open to The Assistant, for me Malamud’s finest novel. The story of Morris Bober, a poor Brooklyn grocer, and his wife Ida; their oppressed but obliging daughter Helen; and Frank Alpine, the local thug who upends their lives and is transformed by the Bobers in turn, it is as concentrated an evocation of the mysterious work of the heart as any you’ll come across. Then go on to The Fixer. More than anything, however, I envy you the discovery of Malamud’s short stories, part of both volumes. Just about each of the strange, gleaming jewels included in the Library of America tribute is like a knife past the heart down deep into the very skin of the soul.

Boris Fishman’s debut novel A Replacement Life, about a failed young journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, is out from HarperCollins June 3. Read more about Boris Fishman and A Replacement Life here.

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In My Characters' Shoes

Wednesday, April 23, 2014 | Permalink

Gwen Edelman’s first novel, War Story, was translated into eight languages, won the Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France, and was a Koret Jewish Book Award finalist. Her most recent novel, The Train to Warsaw (Grove Press), is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One September afternoon I took the train from Berlin to Warsaw, as my characters had done. I wanted to see what they had seen. For the five and a half hours of that train ride I saw nothing but endless miles of birches, pines, fields... It was a warm and sunny day. The blue sky was cloudless. The sunlight glinted on the fields and stippled the birches with light. For my novel The Train to Warsaw, I would have to imagine those same birches and pines and fields in the dead of winter, coat them with snow and frost and turn the sky white.

I had an appointment to meet a journalist from one of the major Warsaw newspapers. He had suggested we meet in a tiny park near Gryzbowska St., a street that had once been inside the ghetto. And so I set off from my hotel to meet him.

There is nothing left of the former ghetto. In the more than 800 acres that once encompassed the ghetto, white Soviet realist style apartment buildings now cover block after block. Of the apartment buildings, the shops, the synagogues from before the war (with the exception of the Nozyk Synagogue), nothing remains. On one block several red brick buildings from before the war are still standing; in the courtyard of an apartment building a piece of the red brick ghetto wall still exists. One or two other buildings are still there. But that is all. The ghetto was burned to the ground by the Nazis during the Ghetto Uprising of April 1943.

And of the former life that once hummed in this corner of the earth, nothing remains.

The journalist and I sat down on a small stone bench. Scattered around the pocket park, several mothers sat rocking baby carriages beneath a sunny sky. There was no one else. The journalist and I talked quietly. All of a sudden I heard, coming from the left, the tramping of boots on cobblestone. The sound grew louder. Five SS men in uniform, smoking, armed, came into view. They didn't look like extras in a film; in fact there were no cameras or crew anywhere. The uniforms looked lived-in, the boots were creased with wear. I thought I was hallucinating. I had done so much research on the Warsaw Ghetto that I had begun to see visions. I turned to the journalist. Are those SS men? I asked, incredulous. Absolutely, he replied.

Now I heard the tramping of boots coming from the right. I turned my head and saw a straggling group of partisans coming toward us, walking single file. One had his head bandaged, all wore outfits that were ragged and torn. One had a bloodied shirt sleeve, all had tin cups attached to their belts. They too were armed. The Polish Home Army? I whispered. Absolutely, he informed me. An SS man had placed a straw basket on the ground. Backs bent, a look of resignation on their faces, each one came up to the SS man and dropped his weapon in the basket.The last man shook the hand of the SS man, who dropped his cigarette and ground it out with the toe of his leather boot. They turned and walked off.

What just happened? I asked the journalist. The Polish Home Army has just surrendered to the SS, he informed me. What? I asked in disbelief. Every year on the same date, in the same place, at the same time, the Polish Home Army surrenders to the SS. But why? I asked. Why in the world would they re-enact their surrender of all things? He shrugged. He had no answer.

This part of town was so quiet now, the streets nearly deserted. Once there had been an ungodly din here. Crowds of up to 500,000 individuals surging through the streets, a madhouse swarming with people, the pavement and streets clogged with the dying and dead. Then there had been no peace, only terror. Everyone in a mad rush, running, pushing forward against the crowds. Back then to stop was to die, to slow down was to be shot or dragged off.

Now a small boy pushed a scooter beneath a soft blue sky, a woman re-tied the strings of a baby's bonnet. Now the place was so peaceful you could hear the sound of leaves softly blown by the wind. How was I to imagine what had once taken place here?

Check back here tomorrow to hear more from Gwen Edeleman.

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Changing Times, Changing Letters, and Moving Forward

Friday, April 18, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Liana Finck wrote about how she discovered A Bintel Brief and shared the history behind the column. Her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning.

Abraham Cahan loved Yiddish, but he was not afraid of change. He urged his readers to be less religious, and to learn how to be Americans. While other Yiddish newspapers refused to print Americanized Yiddish, Cahan’s Forward welcomed the English words that found their way into Yiddish—vinda (window), boychik (boy).

The early Bintel Brief letters are timeless and could have been written anywhere, by anyone who had left his old life behind and traveled across the ocean to a new world. To read them is to get to the essence of things. The later Bintel Brief letters, on the other hand, are bitter. As the Forward’s readership aged and dwindled, the letters were more often written by older people, no longer new to America. They were the last bastions of the Yiddish language, watching sadly as their children grew up, went to college, made money, and became ashamed of their parents. 'Dear Mr. Editor,' people would write, ‘Our children have a Christmas tree;’ ‘Our children don’t keep kosher;’ ‘Our children don’t want us to read a Yiddish newspaper in public. It embarrasses them.’

If the early Bintel Brief letters make me feel connected to my great-grandparents and to my past, the later letters hold an uneasy mirror up to my newfound nostalgia. To me, the letters embodied a bitter-sweet kind of longing for my own culture, and homesickness for my own city. Not many people speak Yiddish anymore—a loss that is too big to fathom; our culture lived in that language, more than in any place.

While I worked on my book, I felt like I was writing my own Bintel Brief letter to Abraham Cahan: “Where are the Jews I can relate to,” I asked. “Where is the old, scrappy New York, the New York that corresponds to my intense, worried, immigrant’s soul?”

How did Cahan answer the late Bintel Brief letters? He didn’t.

Not one for sentimentality, he handed off the role of advice columnist to a staff-member at the Forward, occupying himself with more interesting matters, such as writing a great American novel, eating schav (a green soup), and taking up bird watching. If Cahan were alive now, I don’t think he’d have been the editor of a Yiddish newspaper. He’d be one step ahead of the rest of us, finding the new zeitgeist before we knew it existed. I love the past, and long for it, and seek it always. But Cahan’s spirit is not in the past. It is here. It is now. It does many good things in the world, including teaching nostalgic misfits like me to understand that we do belong in the here and the now.

Liana Finck is an emerging graphic novelist. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Brussels in 2009-10 and is a Six Points Fellow in New York. She publishes in The Forward Newspaper and Tablet Magazine. Read more about her here.

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Finding a Story to Tell

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Liana Finck shared the history behind the Forward's Bintel Brief column. Her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I did not mean to fall in love with the Bintel Brief letters. I grew up Jewish in the New York suburbs and defined myself by what the Jewish suburbs were not—I was an odd, shy kid who loved animals and nature and who drew, and I felt like an alien among the mall rats. (At least, that is how I remember things.) I escaped as soon as I could, to art college in New York, in search of ‘my people’—artists and writers—and art, and books. I knew before I graduated that I wanted to make graphic novels, but it didn’t matter to me what story I told. The medium was the message. After college, I went to Belgium on a Fulbright grant. I had wanted to get away from everyone I knew; I still felt more comfortable with art and books than with people. I sensed that the sooner I made a book of my own, the sooner I would feel that I had a reason to exist; and I believed that the fastest way to create that book would be in a kind of social vacuum. But I sunk under the weight of the graphic novel I was trying to work on (which was to be about a comics artist’s tortured friendship with a fine artist); I was frustrated by what I later realized was a lack of fluency in the craft of comics-making. Mid-way into my year abroad, my grandmother sent me the first half of Isaak Metzker’s two-volume collection of Bintel Brief letters translated into English—A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward (Doubleday, 1971).

Reading the collection of Bintel Brief letters was the most urgent thing that happened to me that year. I hadn’t brought any English books to Brussels because I wanted to force myself to learn French; so the book was rare and precious, like a relic from my lost civilization. When I started reading, the letters reminded me why I wanted to make a book in the first place. They made me cry. I also began to relate to the letter-writers—who had left home in search of a new life, and landed in New York. Then, with a shock, I realized that the letter-writers could have been my great-grandparents. I’d set out on a journey looking for a treasure, only to find it buried deep down under my own doorstep. When I got home from Belgium, I chose some of the Bintel Brief letters from Metzker’s book—and some other, untranslated letters from microfilm copies of The Forward—and began adapting them into a graphic novel. I still wrestled with my medium, but less. It was easier because I had a story to tell.

Liana Finck is an emerging graphic novelist. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Brussels in 2009-10 and is a Six Points Fellow in New York. She publishes in The Forward Newspaper and Tablet Magazine. Read more about her here.

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The Beginnings of A Bintel Brief

Monday, April 14, 2014 | Permalink

Liana Finck is an emerging graphic novelist. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Brussels in 2009-10 and is a Six Points Fellow in New York. She publishes in The Forward Newspaper and Tablet Magazine. Her graphic novel, A Bintel Brief, was published by Ecco. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In January 1906, a woman wrote a letter to a Yiddish daily newspaper called the Forward, to complain that her watch had disappeared. The letter was written in choppy Yiddish; the woman was not used to writing and it was obviously a struggle for her to put her thoughts on paper. The watch was the woman’s only valuable possession. When her son, who supported the family, couldn’t find work, she would pawn the watch so that they’d be able to buy food. The woman suspects her neighbor, an even poorer woman, of taking the watch. She writes “Now the watch lies in the hands of your pawnshop man and not in the hands of my pawnshop man.”

At first, the newspaper editor who read the letter thought the woman had written it in spite, and was trying to shame her neighbor. But on closer inspection, he realized that the letter was actually an exercise in tact. The woman didn’t want to hurt her neighbor’s feelings by confronting her; but she knew the neighbor read the Forward, and hoped to plead with her anonymously through its pages. The letter ends: “I swear on the life of my sick husband that I will remain your friend…just send me the pawn ticket in the mail and I won’t say a word… But give me back my bread.”

The Forward’s editor, Abraham Cahan, published the letter the next day, under a new heading, “A Bintel Brief”—a bundle of letters. The advice column ran in Forward for the next sixty years. A Bintel Brief was an advice column to the highest degree and the most operatic power. Through it, young, alienated Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were given a rare chance to be heard. Mothers wrote in to find the children they’d put up for adoption; despairing people were urged against suicide; starving families were directed to charity organizations; fathers with tuberculosis bared their sorrows about not being allowed to hug their children; women publicly shamed their ‘missing’ husbands. Heavy stuff. And yet: the letters have the anecdotal lightness you’d expect of a more normal advice column. They are surprisingly sweet, often funny—like small, brightly lit windows into the lives of people caught at their most vulnerable, who, through some trick of the printed word, seem like characters in the best kind of fairytale; their lives are hard, but their sadness has meaning, their difficulties are tempered by something otherworldly. Cahan read the letters and answered them concisely, in a fatherly, rabbinical voice. ­

The Forward was already popular in 1906, but A Bintel Brief touched a nerve. By 1912, the newspaper’s circulation had rocketed to 120,000, making the Forward a formidable presence in the world. Abraham Cahan edited with an iron hand, changing the definition of Yiddish publishing. His vision for the Forward was a newspaper that the uneducated could read, which would educate them and bring them joy. He urged people to join the labor movement and fight for better working conditions and wages; he also published simple, ‘fluff’ articles that explained the rules of baseball, the importance of sending children to college, the proper way to use a handkerchief, and how to preserve peaches like a real American. Alongside articles about politics were Yiddish translations of great European novels, printed serially, and pieces of yellow journalism about sensationalist murders and the ‘white slave trade.’

On the side, Cahan wrote novels in English about his world. He wanted to educate the American public about the Jewish immigrants and where they’d come from. His books were radical—no one wanted to read a novel about the New York slums, or the Jews. His most famous novel is called The Rise of David Levinsky. It is a Dickensian tragedy about the American dream, and is full of vivid details from a vanished New York, as well as the thriving Jewish towns in Eastern Europe that have been destroyed since then.

Read more about Liana Finck here.

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The Things I Miss About Israel

Friday, April 11, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eve Harris shared her experiences in a Charedi school in London that informed her debut novel The Marrying of Chani Kaufman. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I made aliyah in 1999 at the age of 25 and lived in Jerusalem for a year, and then for two years in Tel Aviv, working as an English teacher in high schools. I returned to London in 2002 for a break, feeling very burnt out by the intensity of life that is Israel. I needed to recharge my batteries and make a decision about whether living in Israel was really for me. I ended up being offered my old teaching job back at a girls’ Catholic Convent school. I realised at the same time how much I missed the breadth and variety that London has to offer, and its solidity—which is no small thing, having just spent two years living through the second Intifada. Then I met my husband so my fate was decided. While I love Israel deeply and go back to visit nearly every year, there are still a few things I continue to miss about the country:

  • The smell of baked tarmac and hot, moist earth the minute you step off the plane
  • The fact that December 25th is just another ordinary, sunny day
  • The road signs that loom out of nowhere in the desert for places called Sodom and Lot
  • The brilliant, white curves of restored Bauhaus buildings against an azure sky in Tel Aviv
  • The fading, crumbling colonial gems that appear like ghosts flitting between modern blocks, down narrow forgotten streets in South Tel Aviv
  • The existence of Modern Hebrew everywhere—screaming billboards, shop signs, radio jingles, the language of the street and the courtroom, of commerce and of lovers, of politicians and mothers
  • Eating chunks of sweet, fleshy watermelon mixed with salty feta cheese at a café on the beach at midnight—my toes in the sand
  • The sultry scent of oleander, its waxy flowers adding another ingredient to the olfactory explosion that is a Tel Aviv summer night
  • The sweet relief of rain after the relentless barrage of summer
  • The old, wooden poles that support loops of ugly electric cable that hum at night in Neveh Tsedek
  • The screeching of stray cats pursuing their amorous adventures at the back of every apartment block
  • The bliss of stepping into the cool, quiet luxury of air-conditioning
  • The blinding, biblical sunlight that strips the world of colour at midday that can’t be found anywhere else
  • The ancient city of Jerusalem with all its secrets, curses and shadows
  • The modern bubble of Tel Aviv with all its vim and vigour and love of youth and hedonism
  • The quiet and peace that steals over both cities just before sundown on Friday
  • The old, moss covered sycamore trees that look like old men with beards that line Rotschild Boulevard and the fruit bats that live in their branches and haunt your peripheral vision with their silent swooping
  • The smell of hot pine resin and crushed pine needles from the little playground where I used to play as a child near my grandparents’ house
  • The knowledge that if England were to ever throw me out for being a ‘dirty Jew,' I would always have a home

Eve Harris was born to Israeli-Polish parents in Chiswick, West London, in 1973. She taught for 12 years at inner-city comprehensives and independent schools in London and also in Tel Aviv, after moving to Israel in 1999. She returned to London in 2002 to resume teaching at an all girls' Catholic convent school. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman was inspired by her final year of teaching at an all girls' ultra-Orthodox Jewish school in North West London. Eve lives in London with her husband, Jules, and their daughter Rosie.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, April 11, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

JBC Book Clubs Asks: Facilitator Tips on Participation and Staying Focused

Thursday, April 10, 2014 | Permalink

JBC Book Clubs is asking: what does it take to lead a book club?**  

We started this series hearing from Sarah Rindner about the extensive research she does before her book club meetings and when the pros and cons of including author interviews in the discussion. For the second post in this series of tips for facilitators from facilitators, we asked Joan Tedlow, a facilitator of three different book groups, for her thoughts and suggestions. 

I have been facilitating two Jewish book clubs for my synagogue, Temple Solel, a large reform congregation located in North County, San Diego, for the past 15 years. Our membership consists of women (no men unfortunately!) ranging in age from their 30’s to late 80’s. Recently, I added a third club at the local Jewish retirement home. 

In my experience, the most important element of maintaining participation is having women buy into the program by actively involving them in the book selection process. Typically I present 20 books: one biography/autobiography/memoir, one novel by an Israeli author, several non-fiction selections and, of course, contemporary Jewish novels. The group selects 10 books that they would like to read/discuss in the coming year. I also solicit suggestions from the groups. 

 In preparation for the discussion, I read the book no more than 6 weeks in advance, so it is fresh in my mind. I research biographical information about the author, much of which I find on his/her website. The author’s life story often sheds light on his/her work. I read reviews, being careful that they are unbiased. For instance, if they are composed by other authors who also write for the same publisher, I tend to take them with a grain of salt. I prefer sources such as Kirkus reviews and the newspapers, particularly The New York Times Sunday Review of Books. 

On to the actual book club meeting! I begin with the author’s bio and then offer a few reviews. Then I go around the room and ask the group to share with us how they liked/disliked the selection, keeping their comments to just a few sentences. This approach encourages ladies who may be shy to participate. Then I throw out the questions, which I have developed and adapted with the help of on-line resources. Most publishers provide discussion questions, although I almost always find I have to tailor them to our group. I always try to have 10 questions, so the discussion doesn’t fall flat. 

The tricky part of facilitating then comes into play. How do we keep our members from straying from the subject? No one is interested in their personal experiences, if they don’t relate to the subject. I must admit that I tend to be a bit of a tyrant. I have no problem in interrupting a speaker, thanking her for her comments and moving on. It’s not fair to allow one woman to monopolize the conversation. It’s hard not to be rigid when you have formulated the questions and want to get through them, but I find that I do have to allow some unstructured conversation, as long as it relates to the book. My groups are terrific; they always have some pithy insights that I miss. 

At the end of the conversation, I always ask if anyone’s opinion of the material has changed due to the discussion. Would they recommend the book to others?

Looking for author interviews, discussion questions or book recommendations? Look to JBC Book Clubs for all of that and more.

**Do you have tips or advice for leading a book club discussion? Tell us! Share in the comments below or email Miri at if you would like to contribute to this series. 

April 2014 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Thursday, April 10, 2014 | Permalink

What we're reading this month:

Suzanne: The Harem Midwife (Roberta Rich) | Naomi: A Bintel Brief (Liana Finck)
Miri: The Inn at Lake Devine (Elinor Lipman) | Nat: Testimony (The Shoah Foundation)
Carol: The Life-Transforming Diet (David Zulberg) | Mimi: Seduction (M.J. Rose)

Make Passover Cooking a Family Affair

Thursday, April 10, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tamar Ansh shared a recipe for Moroccan-Style Gefilte Fish for Passover. Her newest book, Let My Children Cook!, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Following the release of my newest cookbook, Let My Children Cook! A Passover Cookbook for Kids, people often ask me whether it’s REALLY possible to get the kids to be helpful in the kitchen with all the holiday food prep. The answer is: Yes!! While it may take longer to peel those potatoes or to whisk the eggs, it’s well worth it. Kids love to be helpful (though it may not always seem that way!) and little jobs keep them entertained during the pre-Passover hustle and bustle. Besides, they’ll always remember it as special quality time and will even learn along the way.

Over the years, my kids have spent many enjoyable hours in the kitchen with me. I find it’s all about expectations. I try to set out a certain amount of time we will spend together and try not to push it. Cooking with kids is wonderful but best if done in increments rather than a marathon of kitchen time. If there’s more to be done, I finish it myself after they’ve gone to bed. For the younger ones, I make sure to designate very specific, simple jobs. Once they finish, say, rolling out dough for cookies or chopping veggies for a salad, I make sure to thank them and let them know they’ve been very helpful. This has proven to have gone over well in my family, as my bigger kids are now great cooks. They truly love to prepare anything – but they do have a preference for desserts. (Who doesn’t?!) My son is excellent at braiding challah (not for Passover, of course) and baking apple crisps. Last year, my girls made delicious potato blintzes and Passover egg noodles.

Besides for keeping my kids involved, our time spent in the kitchen together also serves as bonding time. Everyone says they grow up too fast…and it’s true! Soon they’ll be busy with friends and other interests. I like to make cooking time an enjoyable activity for the family, even if it may take longer than doing on my own. Memories that will last a lifetime are being formed. We even have some funny stories involving a few kitchen flops that certainly won’t be forgotten. I once made a beautiful cake with my children and it slipped out of the pan right onto the counter. Of course, they were thrilled since they got to eat it right then and there.

So, I say, instead of dreading the hours of cooking and baking you are planning, embrace it. Get the kids some cute aprons, put on some music, enjoy the quality time. When you sense they’ve had enough, do some crafts together (that is why I included some crafts in Let My Children Cook!) and sit the kids down with some art supplies. The atmosphere will be pleasant and you will be able to check some things off that pre-Passover “to do” list while creating positive memories.

Tamar Ansh is an author, editor and food columnist, among many other things. Her newest book, Let My Children Cook!, is a Passover cookbook for kids aged 8-108 with easy to follow recipes, safety tips and hilarious illustrations, that will help any kid (and their families!) enjoy a delicious and fun Passover for years to come. Some of Tamar Ansh's other books include: A Taste of Challah; Let's Say Amen!, & Pesach – Anything's Possible!, an adult Pesach cookbook with over 350 non gebrochs & gluten free no-fail recipes. Everything can be viewed via her website at Mrs. Ansh also does live cooking and challah shows, and has been published in a wide variety of both print and online publications.​

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