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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 22, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Dominica

Friday, May 22, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Torday wrote about contemporary Jewish writers in a world post-Philip Roth and alluding to the Torah in the modern novel. He is the author of the recently published novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Almost a decade ago now, after much deliberation, my wife and I decided to take our honeymoon on the island of Dominica. An old friend had honeymooned there and loved it—it was the nature island of the Caribbean, and while we loved the beach and each other, we didn’t want just to lie around in the sun for two weeks. I’d long heard of the island because my grandmother’s cousins, John and Rene, had been living there for almost two decades. John had been a World Bank official. In a lifetime of travel around the world, that was where he had decided to settle. So we’d visit. We would spend a week at an eco-tourist resort on the ocean side of the island, and then spend three days with these cousins on the Caribbean side.

We left North Carolina Monday morning after our wedding. After sleeping the whole flight from Miami, I awoke to see where, outside my window, out of the blue sea moaned the wild green island. Dominica is less than ten miles across. The entire island is comprised of a series of volcanoes, as high as forty-seven hundred feet tall. It appeared as if we were two people, in love, flying together directly into a tangle of verdant jungle. Instead we landed, took a vertiginous two-hour jeep ride that tested the limits of my inner ears, taking 145-degree turns on roads that seemed to drop a thousand feet straight into steaming chasms, to a resort called Jungle Bay. Simple huts had been built using the trees cut down to clear a space for the place. Utter beauty. For a week we kayaked, got daily massages together while being plied with fresh fruit juice, ate papaya and mango and pineapple our guide picked and cut while we walked.

Paradise.

A week later we took a taxi to my cousins’ house. The place was called Curry’s Rest. The villa was marked by name on our map. The Caribbean side of the island was tamer. As we turned to the east side of the island, the dramatic roads we’d driven in on calmed, unfurling their view to the low sea off to our right. We looked each other in the eyes, and then out at the sea, tranquil together. Then we were ascending again to Curry’s Rest. After fifteen minutes of increasingly narrow unpaved roads up, my cousin John greeted us. He was in his 80’s, hunched and swarthy with Austrian Ashkenazi blood and Dominican sun. By his side he held a machete.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said. “Put down your bags and I’ll give you the run of the place.” My new wife and I looked each other in the eyes. For a week we’d been massaged, rum-punched to relaxation. Now we were going to see something together. Curry’s Rest was an eighteenth-century villa. To the far right of the building was the original structure. John showed us the red coffee beans just inside its open front, which he’d picked and was sun-roasting on chrome platters. The main house was one open room with scalene ceilings. On the second floor was their bedroom, where John told us his wife was napping, and a guestroom where we would sleep. It did not look like somewhere someone might honeymoon. But it did look like a place where someone might stay put.

After settling our belongings, my wife and I followed John on a tour of Curry’s Rest. The only remaining sugar mill, the reason the island had been settled centuries earlier, sat in ruins maybe a hundred yards from the main house. A Brit named Curry had purchased the place from the Dominican government in the nineteenth century. John bought the place from a Mr. Green. The whole property was almost 300 acres, but if they promised to donate all but fifteen acres of the place to the Dominican government, with the understanding it would remain untouched, they could buy it.

They bought it.

We walked the grounds. My wife went in front and listened, and I felt love—she was paying attention to John for me, and she was paying attention because she was interested. Her gentle generous curiosity had brought me to her, and here it was on display. My octogenarian cousin slapped his machete into coconuts and lifted them for us to taste. He was hunched and bald, five feet tall, but he was an elderly ball of kinetic energy. We went back to the house and napped—neither my wife nor I had the energy to keep up with him—and that evening, as the sun cast pink light over the tops of the trees, we drank rum punch. Rene came to join us. She was suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, John had explained as we walked.

“You might not notice it,” he said. “Or you might.”

Now we sat on the porch. The door to the large main room of the house was wide open. A bat swooped into the house. I looked at my new wife to see if she had noticed. She had. Her eyes grew wide to match mine.

Another bat swooped into the room. Two more flew out. Neither of my elderly cousins seemed to notice.

We drank our rum punch, which was twenty-three times as good as what we’d had at our resort. My wife and I both let our eyes pass over Rene. We smiled at her and she smiled back. She was slight, with a head of luminous grey hair. We were eight days married. Our love was big and present, like you could touch it. It wasn’t something you could forget if you tried. Across from us was a married couple, isolated in the jungle while one lost her memory. Rene had left her home in Prague at the outbreak of World War II for a safe haven in London. That was where she had met John, who had escaped Austria under similar circumstances. I’d long wanted to hear the story. I asked Rene if she would tell us. She smiled and said nothing.

“When we met it was 1941,” John said. “We were living in a big group home south of London, full of East European refugees. We’d only known each other a month when I was called up for service.” My wife and I had been dating on and off for nearly eight years. We loved each other something fierce. But it hadn’t always been easy. Love never is. For a couple years we were broken up. By some luck, a year after I moved to a place in Fort Greene, she did, too. On September 11, though we weren’t together, right after I arrived at my office on 55th Street and saw the buildings fall, she was the first person I called. Though we were each dating someone else, we spent that afternoon at a mutual friend’s Midtown apartment, watching the CNN crawl. I loved her even when we weren’t together. One Friday afternoon a year later we ran into each other in Grand Central Station. She’d come back with me to my place. After living together for two years, we were engaged.

“In those days you didn’t always have choices,” John said. “The day I was to head in for service in the British Army, we rode together to the train station. Already we were in love. I asked Rene if she wanted to marry me. She said yes. We’ve been together since.” The two of them were sitting just a couple of feet apart. The sun had now set. We were in that half-light that comes amid the first moments of evening. It was as if the world between us wasn’t real. Bats flitted in and out of the great dark room beside us.

I looked at my new wife. She wasn’t paying any attention to the bats now, either.

“But what I really want to know,” my cousin John said, and we really wanted to know what he really wanted to know, “Is how was that new resort? We’ve heard much about it, but haven’t yet seen it.”

We spent the next hour telling him about the resort. I’d had awful pain in my back when we were sea kayaking and my wife had to do much of the paddling. The highlight had been our long walk up to the boiling lake, where our tour guide, a local man named Jesus, had answered his cell phone at the highest point of the hike, to make plans for with friends for later that week. The lake was obscured by plumes of steam that lifted out of the water. I was afraid of heights, and didn’t like getting close to the edge. 

“I got close to the edge,” my wife said.

She had. I’d followed. There I’d seen something I wouldn’t have otherwise: for a couple seconds the steam would lift, and down in the chasm below we could see the gray roiling water. Without her nudge, I’d never have seen it. Maybe this was the truth of love: the spectacular world you’d never see without the person who brought you there.

I reached out and grabbed my new wife’s hand. She looked at me, I guess, but dark had fallen over us on that porch at Curry’s Rest. I wanted to know what my cousins were thinking. I could only make out the shadowy forms of bats flitting in and out of the house. We couldn’t see John and Rene’s faces. We knew they were there, like they knew we were here, the two of us starting out on the years that lay before us, behind them, green mountain jutting from some blue sea.

Daniel Torday's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. Read more about him here.

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Tightening the Narrative

Thursday, May 21, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebin ​shared three passage​s​ that didn't make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate​. She also explained why she chose to excise each scene—one because of a chronological error that affected the action, ​one involving tropical fish​ ​that ultimately struck the author as implausible, and one because ​she ​​felt it was more polemical than literary. T​oday, ​she offers the fourth and final installment in her Jewish Book Council Visiting Scribe series​ that pulls back the curtain on a writer's self-editing process.​

In this final installment of Stuff Left Out of my novel, I’ll share a scene that was cut simply to speed up the pace and tighten the narrative. Though ultimately dropped, I liked what it revealed about the relationship between Zach, the protagonist of Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, and Cleo, the African-American woman he loves. This action takes place in the Eighties at Zach’s Harvard Law School reunion.

About half his classmates had come back to Cambridge for the weekend and Cleo got along well with all of them until Saturday night when, at the alumni dinner, she ended up at a long table seated between Archie Minton and Matt Bradley, Zach's former schoolmates but not men he'd considered friends. He sat diagonally across from Cleo, close enough to hear Archie, obviously in his cups, propose a toast to Nelson Mandela.

Cleo gave the man a quizzical look but raised her glass. “Sure, Archie, I’ll drink to Madiba anytime,” she said, using Mandela’s clan name, a sign of respect.

They clinked glasses. “He’s your people’s last chance, wouldn’t you say?” Archie asked, slurring his consonants.

Cleo turned to stone. “What people would you be referring to?”

“Africans. Can’t handle independence, any of ‘em.”

“Excuse me?” Cleo shot Zach a fierce frown.

He shrugged, as if to say, what a jerk, though his first impulse was to jump in and defend her. However, remembering how annoyed she was after he intervened on her behalf during a dustup at a meeting of the Black-Jewish Coalition, he made himself hold back and just kept his eyes on her glaring face while Archie jabbered on about the abysmal failure of African leaders, the corruption and mass murders in Ethiopia, Sudan, Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi, and how much better off black people were under white colonial rule.

When she finally spoke, Cleo, didn’t so much increase the volume of her voice as whittle its round edges to a point. “Are you suggesting that corruption and genocide are African inventions? If so, I have two words for you: Hitler. Stalin.

Archie Minton, momentarily stifled, picked up his stirrer and started playing tic-tac-toe on the tablecloth. The other man, Matt Bradley, was quick to dive into the breach. “Yeah, but for every Hitler, we had a Roosevelt, for every Stalin a Churchill, for every dictator, a Lincoln. Who’s your Lincoln, Cleo?”

Lincoln is my Lincoln, you asshole!”

“Don’t raise your voice at me, sister.” Matt shot his cuffs out of his sleeves as if raring for a fight. “I’ll have you know my people fought the Civil War to free your people. I have ancestors who gave their lives for the Union.”

Cleo threw her napkin at Matt. “I won’t be spoken to as if I’m an ungrateful slave!” Grabbing her purse, and without a backwards glance, she stormed out of the banquet hall. Zach ran after her but she wouldn’t let him touch her and he couldn’t get a word out of her until they reached their hotel room where she immediately began flinging her clothes into her suitcase.

“I can’t believe you let those racist boors humiliate me. How could you sit there like it wasn’t happening? Why didn’t you rescue me?”

“Wait a minute, Cleo. You were pissed when I intervened at the Black-Jewish Coalition. You’ve had far bigger boors on your talk show and you dispatched them like Wonder Woman. I thought you wanted to handle them yourself."

“You have no idea what I want, Zach!”

She flew back to New York that night on the last shuttle. Zach, having committed to speak on a civil rights panel at lunch the next day, wasn’t able to leave until Sunday afternoon. In the cab to the city from LaGuardia, he had the driver make two stops on the East Side so he could buy a bunch of African daisies and a bottle of South African wine before continuing cross-town to Cleo’s place.

“I’ve heard your continent produces lousy leaders, but great chardonnay,” Zach teased, when she opened the door. He bowed deeply. “You were right about last night, Sweetheart. Please forgive me.” He ducked into her tiny kitchen and brought out a corkscrew and a couple of wine glasses.

“If I’d been the only Jew at a table full of black people and a couple of jerks started browbeating me about Israel, I’m sure you would have rescued me.”

Cleo arranged the daisies in a vase, accepted the glass of wine, and eked out a grin. “Really? What makes you so sure?”

All this week, I’ve pulled back the curtain on one writer’s process of pruning a work of fiction into shape. I hope you’ve been sufficiently intrigued by the scenes I left out of the novel to want to read the finished book and see what I left in.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. Or meet her at the CUNY Graduate Center, Fifth Avenue & 34th Street, NYC, Monday June 1st from 6:30-8:30 when​ she will be in conversation with Marcia Gillespie, the ​legendary former editor-in-chief of Essence and Ms. ​Letty & Marcia will be ​talking​ about the power of legacy, race, gender, feminism, the impact of inherited trauma, and other issues that play out among the characters in Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. RSVP for the event here.

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On Writing about Black-Jewish Relations in a Novel

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 | Permalink
​​On Monday and Tuesday this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebin ​shared two passage​s​ that didn't make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate​. She also explained why she chose to excise each scene—one because of a chronological error that affected the action, ​and one involving tropical fish​ ​that ultimately struck the author as implausible. T​oday, ​she offers the third installment in her Jewish Book Council Visiting Scribe series​ that pulls back the curtain on a writer's self-editing process.​

In ​order to understand my decision in context, you need to know that in ​my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, Zach Levy, an ACLU lawyer and the son of Holocaust survivors, is on a mission to fulfill his promise to his dying mother that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. However things get complicated when​ one day, at the founding conference of the Black-Jewish Coalition of New York, Zach meets and falls in love with Cleo Scott, an African-American talk show host. As the old saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs.”

The relationship between Zach and Cleo unspools in the foreground of the larger relationship between the black and Jewish communities in New York. Rising tensions reached a boiling point during the 1984 Presidential campaign after Jesse Jackson famously called the city “Hymietown,” and a Jewish businessman retaliated with a full-page ad in The Times that excoriated the black Democratic candidate and insisted “a Jew would have to be crazy to vote for Jackson.”

Having lived through that volatile period and participated in two different black-Jewish dialogue groups (one of which met monthly for ten years), I have strong opinions on the subject of black-Jewish relations, not all of which surfaced in my final manuscript. For instance, this passage:

Zach could well understand why “Hymietown” might offend Jewish ears; surely blacks would be similarly affronted if a white candidate called the city “Coontown.” But unlike many of his fellow Jews, he did not believe Jackson’s use of the term proved the candidate an irredeemable anti-Semite. By the same token, unlike many black people, Zach did not think Jews were purposely magnifying the incident in order to turn off liberal voters and bring down America’s first politically viable black presidential hopeful.

As he waited for the meeting of the Black-Jewish Coalition to begin, he thought about the disparate impact of various​ stereotypes. Clearly, neither “Hymie” nor “Coon” flatters the group it purports to describe. But stereotypes like, “Jews are smart” or “Jewish men make the best husbands,” never spawned a Jewish protest. Nor did assertions such as, “Blacks are better athletes” or “Blacks are great dancers” upset most African-Americans. So when people said they hate stereotypes, Zach knew that what they really meant was they hate negative stereotypes. Generalizations that cast their own group in a positive light were perfectly acceptable.

“Jews are clannish” could go either way. Negative: Jews stick to their own kind and care only about themselves. Positive: Jews support and defend each other, especially when they’re under attack.

That explained why so many Jewish VIPs had given up a beautiful spring afternoon to come to today’s meeting. Rather than Jackson’s jibe registering simply as a negative stereotype, it seemed to mark a profound and disturbing shift in the two groups’ relationship. Some Jews felt the “Hymietown” incident was a measure of black-Jewish alienation, a symbol of the irreparable tear in the two groups’ historic bonds, and a sign that the once-dependable solidarity of the Civil Rights era was a thing of the past. A new poll that showed increasing anti-Semitism among younger African-Americans, and virulent hostility from the black minister Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam added to many ​Jews'​​ discomfort. They felt under attack and vulnerable; they wanted reassurance from their African-American counterparts that the old alliance was intact.

Why did I jettison that passage? Because it was polemical, more op-ed than ​literary prose. I also thought Zach’s assumptions about his fellow Jews’ motivations for attending the meeting were presumptuous. So out it went.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. And if you're in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book tonight, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81-82 St) in Manhattan.

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Year Five, A.P.R. (After Philip Roth)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Torday wrote about alluding to the Torah in the modern novel. He is the author of the recently published novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

We currently reside in the fifth year since Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing fiction, and while many of the faithful held out for a Brett-Favre-style return (well, I did anyway), it now appears Roth meant it. Since Nemesis came out in 2010, we’ve had the entertaining Roth Unbound by Claudia Roth Pierpont, looking back on each of his books. There’s been word of an authorized by Blake Bailey— who may well be the greatest living literary biographer, as his perfect books on Cheever and Richard Yates evince.

But no new Roth.

So what does this void mean for the working Jewish novelist? Is there a substantive sense of a lack of leadership, of competition, in having one of the world’s best living novelists (as Nadine Gordimer called him in the pages of The New York Times Book Review) permanently sidelined? I’ve always loved that when James Joyce met WB Yeats, he told the elder poet, “You are too old. I have met you too late,” apparently meaning too old to teach him anything. The gall! And yet there’s something exhilarating about the brash young novelist (he turned out pretty good) shouting up at the legend.

I don’t harbor in my pen any of Joyce’s limitless skills or pretensions, and I was in my mid-twenties before someone handed me any Roth. As an undergraduate I mostly read Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Melville. But then in my early 20’s I read Goodbye, Columbus, and a whole world opened up before me—as a writer. That the intimacies of urban, suburban and post-urban Newark could be the setting for a literary novel was news to me. My own growth as a writer seemed at times to follow what I read in book after book of Roth’s—his Prague came before the Prague I was making on the page in my own first novel, his Neil Klugman seemed to cast a shadow over my own narrators as he did over those I found in Harold Brodkey, in David Bezmozgis’s Natasha, in so many books I was reading. I’ve got not a thing to teach Roth, like Joyce felt he did Yeats. But I still think of him, however subconsciously, every time I open a fresh Word file.

But I suppose on some level in surveying a literary field with Roth on the sidelines, what we can see now is just a wide open sense of the possibilities for the Jewish novelist, he or she now running out over the edge of some Wiley Coyote cliff, trying hard not to look down. One never wants to name names, but when we read Bezmozgis, Molly Antopol, Nicole Krauss, Gary Shtyengart, Adam Levin, Lara Vapnyar, Jonathan Safran Foer (this list could go on for pages), so many of the huge list of Jewish novelists and story writers working today, there is a sense of waiting to see who will take up that mantel that Roth so long held. And hoping in some weird way that one day we’ll all look down to find there’s one more Roth novel under our feet, back on the field for one last season, against all hope.

Daniel Torday's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. Read more about him here.

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Interview: Jonathan D. Sarna

Tuesday, May 19, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

Lincoln and the Jews: A History by Jonathan D. Sarna and Benjamin Shapell chronicles the extraordinary relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and American Jews. Through handwritten letters, maps, and photographs this book shows Lincoln’s impact on Jews being accepted into American society as well as how Jews influenced his presidency. Jewish Book Council had the privilege of interviewing the author, Brandeis Professor Jonathan D. Sarna.

Elise Cooper: Your previous book dealt with Grant and the Jews. How would you compare Grant and Lincoln’s attitude towards the American Jew?

Jonathan D. Sarna: In December 1862 General Grant expelled ‘Jews as a class’ from the war zone encompassing Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky with General Orders No. 11. Grant persuaded himself that the Jews caused the smuggling problem. There is no question that Jews were smugglers, but certainly not every Jew, and non-Jews were smuggling as well. Fortunately, Lincoln was president and knew Jews going back to his days in Illinois. He overturned that order because he did not want to see a class of people indicted for a few sinners. If this order had not been overturned people might say ‘even in America Jews can be expelled,’ but instead Jews saw a defender in the American president. Even Grant after he became president tried to prove he was not prejudiced against Jews by speaking out for Jewish rights and appointing Jews to important government offices.

EC: As with many Americans, Jews also had families torn apart by the Civil War. Do you agree?

JDS: A good friend of Lincoln’s, Abraham Jonas, was Jewish, an Abolitionist, yet his son fought for the Confederacy. He had many relatives in the South including six children. Many Jews had relatives in the North and South where families were pitted against one another.

EC: It was interesting that a sermon delivered by Rabbi Sabato Morais in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1863 used these words as he reminded his constituents that independence is “the event which four score and seven years ago brought to this new world light and joy.” Do you think Lincoln borrowed this phrase for his Gettysburg Address?

JDS: No previous Lincoln scholar noticed that the rabbi used that phrase. We do know that some of Morais’ sermons were sent to Lincoln and that he read them. Good politicians are known for borrowing phrases that will resonate with the public. So it is possible. All we know for sure is that Morais used the phrase before Lincoln and that the president had read some of Morais’ sermons.

EC: Do you think it was significant that Lincoln appointed the first Jewish Chaplain?

JDS: Yes, because it paved the way for minority faiths to gain recognition in the Christian-dominated army. This appointment showed the world Judaism was not a second-class religion in America and allowed Jewish soldiers to have their own clergy. Remember there were thousands of Jews serving in the Union Army. What is even more interesting is how Lincoln used his political skills to get this done. He buried the amendment to the chaplaincy bill inside another bill that gave raises to popular generals, ensuring that the bill would be approved.

EC: Why did Lincoln target the Jewish vote in the 1864 election?

JDS: His podiatrist Isaac Zacharie made a distinct effort to build Jewish support for Lincoln. We now know that the Jewish vote was not just targeted by politicians in the twentieth century. Prior to the 1864 election I am not familiar that anyone running for president sought the Jewish vote the way Lincoln clearly did.

EC: In the beginning of the book there are concentric circles of Lincoln’s Jewish connections. Why?

JDS: It showed that there were over a hundred Jews with whom Lincoln had some tie or connection. He had more Jewish friends and acquaintances than any previous president. Friendships break down stereotypes. Friends like Jonas and Zacharie allowed Lincoln to understand Jews. I think the Jewish population’s growth is also reflected in the diagram. That growth is partly due to Jewish immigration from Central Europe: there were but 3,000 Jews in America when Lincoln was born and about 150,000 in 1860.

EC: What do you want the readers to get out of the book?

JDS: That Lincoln, more than any previous president, promoted the inclusion of Jews into the fabric of American life and transformed them from outsiders to insiders. I want people to understand that American history is Jewish history as well. Many think that Jewish American history begins in the twentieth century but it is very important to realize that Jews have been a significant part of this country’s history much earlier.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and Q and A's for many different outlets including the Military Press. She has had the pleasure to interview bestselling authors from many different genres.

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Israeli Writers Embracing English

Tuesday, May 19, 2015 | Permalink

by Ranen Omer-Sherman


Books Discussed in This Essay


Literary critics have lately feted what some are calling a “new” Israeli literary diaspora constituting expatriates who continue to write Hebrew literature even after living abroad for many years (their numbers include Dorit Abusch, Maya Arad, Ari Lieberman, Ruby Namdar, joined most recently by renowned Palestinian-Israeli novelist Sayed Kashua in announcing his decision to remain abroad for the time being). Indeed, the University of Cambridge is devoting an entire conference to this “trend.” Yet while the truth is that there has actually been a dedicated subculture of Hebrew writing in North America since at least the 1920s, an arguably more intriguing movement of writing has emerged, by Israeli expats or others who gained singular perspectives on their troubled society from their prolonged sojourns abroad, determined to reach out directly to English readers. If the three books discussed here are any indication, their voices may constitute some of the boldest and most exciting writing reflecting Israel’s troubled reality today. And as it happens, each has been the recipient of important literary awards.

Ayelet Tsabari draws on many personal and familial layers in her first collection, not surprising for one who grew up among six siblings in a struggling Yemenite household in Petah Tikva. Reflecting on her identity after two decades living in Canada, Tsabari suggests that the seeds for her current identity as an expat writer were mysteriously planted within her long ago: “For some strange reason, I’ve always felt in the margins, and felt comfortable in the margins. I’m an exile by choice, but where did it come from, when did it start?” That sensibility certainly resonates in her sharp portrayal of memorable characters such as the prickly matriarch of “Invisible”; frequently revisiting her final days in Yemen she feels only a tenuous sense of belonging to her ostensible homeland Israel.

In considering this and other characters’ alienations, one cannot help but think of how her collection’s evocative title (The Best Place On Earth) reflects Tsabari’s personal sense of displacement: “This sense of not belonging early in life…I wonder if it’s losing a parent at an early age, a sense of looking for him in the world, looking for a place that would be that type of connection.” Her eleven stories, each a vivid immersion in a different Israeli topos (Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Eilat, Negev), are distinguished by a resolute open-endedness, a quality that ensures her characters and their possible futures will linger with us just a little longer. It is rare to encounter any short-story collection (let alone a first book) without some unevenness yet remarkably that is not the case in this exceptional collection. The Best Place On Earth is positively brimming with exilic protagonists (each a transient, nomad, or displaced in one way or another) who find themselves challenged by myriad forms of boundaries and contact zones.

In spite of the book’s uniform excellence, it seems worth singling out a few that boldly brush against the grain of some of the well-worn conventions of alienation often associated with Ashkenazi Israeli writers. For instance, in “Below Sea Level,” the anticipated clash between a traditional Zionist father and a diffident son takes an unexpectedly redemptive turn, while in “Borders” (a title that could well serve the entire volume) the young protagonist vacationing in Eilat on the cusp of her army service comes to a startling revelation about a very different patrimony. And while this collection refreshingly presents Israeli reality from the perspective of Mizrahi characters, nowhere is that more moving than in “The Poets in the Kitchen Window” where young Uri’s sense of self and possibility seems irrevocably transformed when he first encounters the forceful lyricism of Iraqi-born Israeli poet Roni Someck. Tsabari’s gifts for open-ended destinies, sharply revealing conversations that establish character, and the transformative potential of quotidian encounters, is often suggestive of how Grace Paley, an acknowledged master of the American short story, might have sounded had she delved into the lives of younger native-Israeli heroines rather than working-class New York wives and mothers. So just where is “the best place on earth”? Perhaps wherever one manages to live wholly and authentically, these stories seem to suggest. Tsabari is currently writing her memoir as part of a three-book contract with Random House.

It is difficult to describe the experience of encountering the visceral stories in Avner Mandelman’s gritty and violent Talking to the Enemy for the first time, but every year, I see their impact on the startled faces of my students who often single his work out as their favorite writing of the semester. Born in Israel in the fateful year of 1947, Mandelman’s entire oeuvre seems dedicated to tough moral examinations of the repercussions of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty, especially in the lives of those caught up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The news one finds in his raw portrayals of those dedicated to defending Israel is often very bleak, informed by the writer’s own life. From 1965 to 1968, Mandelman served in the Israeli Air Force and fought in the Six Day War; later he emigrated to Canada where his literary expression found a welcome home. His works were selected for both Best American Short Stories and the esteemed Pushcart Prize anthology. Talking to the Enemy won the Sophie Brody Award for Jewish literature and a subsequent collection The Cuckoo and his suspenseful novel The Debba (inspired by the distress he felt in the early traumatic days of the Yom Kippur War) each received strong acclaim.

These shocking, plot-driven stories plunge readers deep into both the inner and outer geographies of contemporary Israeli reality. Mandelman's shattering language reliably entertains, quickening our pulse like an airport novel, but also demands our attention to the troubling moral quandaries presented by the shifting position of the powerful and the powerless. Most prominently that occurs in the disturbing fable “Og” where in a mythical kingdom, a golem-like figure is perpetually resurrected to confront the land’s enemies but at a great cost. It unfolds with the logic of a nightmare and serves as a powerfully timeless coda to the preceding stories set in the gritty present. Perhaps the most memorable stories concern the recurring character, Mickey, a Mossad agent and son of Holocaust survivors, who narrates episodes that span a lifetime, beginning in "Terror," where his betrayal of his younger brother earns a violent lesson from his father, the stark doctrine that will rule over the rest of his life: "Is it good for my people?" The sacrifices made by a generation inheriting the unresolved conflict left by the previous is never more palpable than in Mickey’s bleak observation that “I had been under Operational Rules ever since I had joined, nineteen years before, just as my father had been, ever since he had arrived in Palestine, more than 50 years ago.” Cumulatively, the stories of Talking grapple brilliantly with that unsparing legacy; the nature of being hard and the costs of that condition.

In interviews Mandelman has remarked on his preoccupation with the problem of “how much necessary evil can be allowed by a civilized society” and I can’t think of any writer who provides better insight into that question and indeed the entire Israeli psyche, the unbearable tensions of life in a society so devoted to the triumph of strength and toughness that life itself can seem a fortress. Whether exploring a Mossad operation gone badly astray, childhood trauma, or familial strife the ancient biblical palimpsest is always an insistent presence, lurking just beneath reality, beneath language itself. Mandelman’s acerbic attunement to the tragic ways that ancient scripts of violence are encoded in the conflicts of his homeland is succinctly captured in a rueful salutation from the penultimate page of Talking: “I would like to acknowledge the ancient fictioneers who anonymously wrote the all-time bestseller, and who, astonishingly, managed to convince half of humanity that it is entirely normal to live one’s life according to antique fictions. Without this marvelously original con job, I would have little to write about.” All the heartbreak, hilarity, and horror in Talking seem to derive from this epiphany.

Like Mandelman, Shani Boianjiu’s language is shrewdly illustrative of the undeniably corrosive effects of military culture on young Israelis, especially the toll taken on female soldiers. Her complex and tough-minded The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was shortlisted for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and excerpted in The New Yorker, a substantial achievement for such a young and first-time novelist. Moreover, she is the youngest recipient ever of the U.S. National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Award. Boianjiu grew up in Kfar Vradim, one of Israel’s so-called “peripheral” communities, a small village in the Galilee close enough to the Lebanese border that it was embattled by frequent Hezbollah rocket attacks. Though Boianjiu first began to write during her IDF service those early efforts were entirely discarded and her first book originated in a creative writing class undertaken while studying English at Harvard University.

For anyone still accustomed to thinking of the war story as a masculine genre, this brave first novel may be a revelation. Boianjiu first began to write during her IDF service and the fact that she chose to write in English results in an undercurrent of destabilization that produces the notes of surrealism familiar to anyone who has ever served in the military of any country. As she told the New York Times, that choice “forced me to think carefully about every word I used.” Perhaps because of that mindfulness, the young voices of Boianjiu’s protagonists are both brash and vulnerable, often at the same time. We first meet Yael, Avishag, and Lea, just as they are about to graduate from a small high school in a remote development town and, in the novel’s savvy bookending structure, we meet them again as civilians after their IDF service where we confront the implications of how nothing and yet everything has changed for them.

In addition to her nuanced portrayals of her three protagonists, Boianjiu evinces profound concern for the fate and identity of the other and her empathic portraits in The People of Forever’s loosely-structured plot (best to think of this work as stories linked by recurring characters rather than a conventional novel) take us deep into how the myriad unsettling realities of the Middle East affect individual lives. For instance, in “Checkpoint,” Lea can’t help obsessing over the marriage and domestic life of Fadi, a Palestinian man she encounters as he crosses into Israel from the West Bank in search of day labor. Elsewhere Boianjiu deftly maneuvers between the alternating perspectives of Avishag and a desperate Sudanese refugee who hurls herself onto the barbed-wire fence at the Egyptian border. In The People of Forever’s uneasy, and occasionally caustically humorous episodes, Boainjiu renders unforgettable portraits of characters trapped between girlhood and womanhood, not only beleaguered by questionable security missions that severely challenge their sense of values and selfhood but damaged by sexual harassment, and worse, from their fellow soldiers. Though her first book was written while living in the United States and Ireland, she is now back in the Western Galilee at work on her second novel.

Any reader wishing to understand Israeli reality, both its claustrophobic togetherness and its fragmentation, the heavy burden borne by its young citizen-soldiers will find each of these powerful books deeply rewarding. As should be evident by now, in addition to their expatriate sensibilities, the works of Tsabari, Boianjiu, and Mandelman also share a profound concern for the fate of Israel’s myriad Others, whether the alienated Arab minority, the ambivalences of Mizrahi Jews, or the homesickness of Philippine caregivers. And something else: each of their singular insider-outsider perspectives bears witness to the inevitable coarsening of young people (and by extension, their entire society), wrought by their military service and a conflict with no end in sight. Finally, while the choice to write in the English language may still be a relatively minor phenomenon, it seems worth noting that the acclaimed Israeli artists Rutu Modan (Exit Wounds and The Property) and Yirmi Pinkus (a founder of the graphic novel publishing house Actus Tragedus) have both been publishing their graphic narratives in English since the early 2000s.

In Jews and Words, a charmingly iconoclastic account of Jewish languages and literatures, coauthors Amos Oz and daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger celebrate the fact that “Jews around the world have not been so mutually intelligible since the fall of Judea” due to the increasing conversation of Hebrew and English, “the two major surviving languages of the Jews…[both are very much alive in this role. There is still something of a chasm between them but many bridges are being built; the present book, written in English by two native Hebrew speakers, is one such bridging attempt.” Moreover, even the much-celebrated writer Etgar Keret has elected to publish his much-anticipated memoir The Seven Good Years, due out exclusively in English later this year. An examination of an unusual family that reads like a microcosm of Israel itself (a child born on the day of a suicide-bombing, an ultra-Orthodox sister who has eleven children; a dovish, marijuana-smoking brother, and Holocaust-survivor parents), promises to expand the horizons of Israeli literature. While not strictly in the category of expat literature, this growing trend may represent something even more interesting. Perhaps, as the marginalization of Israel grows, its writers are growing more restless, eager to escape the insularity of their traditional audience and plunge directly into the uncertain reception of a much wider readership.

Ranen Omer-Sherman is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Louisville and his latest book is Imagining the Kibbutz: Visions of Utopia in Literature & Film.

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The Tropical Fish That Didn't Make the Cut

Tuesday, May 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote about a passage that didn't make it into her just-published novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. She will be sharing deleted scenes from the novel all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Yesterday’s post—the first in my mini-series on Stuff Left Out—described a passage I deleted from the original manuscript of my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, after a copy editor discovered a serious chronological error. Today, I’m going to share with you a scene that was cut for a different reason.

The excised passage, reprinted below, opened with ten-year-old Zach Levy and his mother, Rivka, arriving at the dentist’s office for his annual checkup. (You need to know that Rivka, a profoundly traumatized Holocaust survivor, was a renowned pediatrician in Krakow before the war.)

His mother took the only empty chair in the waiting room and idly thumbed through a copy of Woman’s Day while Zach, transfixed, planted himself before the broad, brightly-lit aquarium, gazing at the skittering rainbow-colored fish.

A blue and yellow striped loner glided across the tank’s glass wall. “That’s a Pomacanthis imperator,” Rivka said, suddenly materializing at Zach’s side. “The pretty red fish are Betta splendens. And that one”—she pointed to a silver creature with a long speckled tail—is a Poecilia reticulatus.”

Zach stared at his mother in disbelief. “Since when do you know so much about tropical fish?”

“I had an aquarium once.” Her voice was one tone above a whisper, her glance hooked to the silvery fish.

“You did?”

“Yes. In my waiting room. A doctor’s office can be frightening to children. Fish calms their anxiety.”

Amazed to actually be exchanging this many words with his dour and taciturn mother, Zach tried to keep the conversation going. “Which one’s your favorite, Mama?”

“The Carassius auratus,” Rivka replied, softly, nodding at a plain white fish with a huge red knob sticking up from its head.

The boy frowned at the disfigured specimen but feigned enthusiasm. “"That’s mine, too, Mama. It’s so…so unusual!” In truth, the electric blue fish was his favorite.

A few months later, when Rivka was troubled by an impacted wisdom tooth, they returned to the dentist’s office only to find on a ledge beside the aquarium a tower of plastic containers and a mesh net. Taped to the glass tank was a note in block letters: MOVING TO NEW OFFICE ON FRIDAY. HELP YOURSELF. ONE FISH PER PATIENT.

Zach grabbed the net. “I’ll get the blue one!” he exclaimed before he could censor himself.

Rivka shook her head.

He corrected himself. “Sorry, Mama. I’ll get the white one.” He corrected himself, thinking, if she likes it, I’ll learn to like it, but as he dipped the net into the luminous water, Rivka grabbed his arm.

“No fish,” she said, firmly. "Jews don’t need pets. It’s hard enough for us to take care of ourselves.”

He begged her to reconsider but once she’d made up her mind, he knew there was no arguing with Rivka. They left the dentist’s office empty-handed.

I wrote that scene to underscore the distance between young Zach and his refugee mother. Also to remind the reader that Rivka, a broken casualty of Nazi brutality, once had a medical practice and, witness her knowledge of fish species, other scientific interests; she wasn’t always the semi-comatose woman we meet in this book.

However, on second and third reading, the scene rang false. Rivka may have been my invention but as I wrote her into being, she made it clear to me that she was not the sort of woman who, merely at the sight of an aquarium, would emerge from the chrysalis of her anguish reciting the Latin names of tropical fish.

Which is why the scene in the dentist’s waiting room ended up on the cutting room floor.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine and the author of eleven books. Read more about her here. And if you're in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book on Wednesday, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81-82 St) in Manhattan.

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Alluding to the Torah

Monday, May 18, 2015 | Permalink

Daniel Torday's novella The Sensualist won the 2012 National Jewish Book Award in Outstanding Debut Fiction. His debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My years as an undergraduate were neatly bookended by reading the two most highly allusive books of modernism: week one at Kenyon College I read TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, and it was as if the top of my head was properly blown off. End of my final year there I wrote a senior thesis on the role of Shylock in James Joyce’s Ulysses, a system of literary allusion to Merchant of Venice that ran through every page of that book. Small surprise I found myself seeking out the Jews in Joyce.

When the time came to write my own first two books, though, I found my system of allusion was nowhere near so broad. I have not tried my hand at getting down just a bit of Sanskrit, as Joyce did in Finnegan’s Wake (I’ve heard that there are as many as 60 languages used to some degree of competence in that novel, though I’ll never try to find out myself—not smart enough). I don’t have a strong sense of the Greeks, as Eliot did.

What I had was the Torah.

And it’s not a bad resource, as five thousand years of its being read might already have suggested. In the moments when Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac arose in mind, or Noah at sea searching for a mountaintop, no matter how distant, there was a sense that rather than reaching for Joyce or Eliot’s resources—or Joyce or Eliot, for that matter!—there was a deep and weighty model at hand. Some of that nearness-to-hand came to make me realize that the years of Hebrew school drudgery weren’t for naught. I’d internalized a lot of stories there. Some came from having recently been through a project of re-reading Genesis and Exodus.

Some, though, came from a markedly non-Jewish source: Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Housekeeping. I’ve long been a huge fan of the book, but in teaching it every year for the past four or five years in a novel-writing workshop I run, something deep and mysterious has arisen about novel-writing—and about the Pentateuch—for me. There’s a kind of near-mysticism in the Calvinist underpinnings of that novel that feel somehow non-denominational, and yet familiar from my own dabbling in reading about Kabbalah as a kid. Somewhere early in that novel its narrator, Ruth, says, “Everything that falls upon the eye is apparition, a sheet dropped over the world’s true workings.” I don’t know exactly how I square that sentence with my own sense of faith, but I do know it comports with my worldview.

But late in Housekeeping, Ruth moves into something that sounds more to my ear like Midrash. Chapter 10 starts this way:

Cain murdered Abel, and the blood cried out from the earth; the house fell on Job’s children, and a voice was induced or provoked into speaking from a whirlwind; and Rachel mourned for her children; and King David for Absalom. The force behind the movement of time is a mourning that will not be comforted… Cain killed Abel, and the blood cried out from the ground—a story so sad that even God took notice of it.

Every time I read that page my secular and Jewish educations seem to yoga their way right over each other—Wednesday nights at Hebrew school, Saturday mornings as a 19-year-old holed up hung-over in the library reading Faulkner, year after year of looking for the touchstones of my first novel all seem to bend until they touch top of head to heel of foot.

There are systems of allusion and there are systems of allusion; there are stories we’ve heard so long they are no longer stories, but instead some part of our DNA. I’m humbled to feel that in some way I’m able to share mine with those sitting in shul on Saturday morning, those sitting reading the Torah in the comfort of their own home, and those reading Housekeeping every time the headspace opens up to do so.

Read more about Daniel Torday here.

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A Glimpse Into the Editing Process: What Didn't Make it Into the Book

Monday, May 18, 2015 | Permalink

Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a founding editor of Ms. magazine, is the author of eleven books, most recently the just-published Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate. Throughout the next week, she will be sharing passages that didn't make it into the final version of her new novel and explain the decision behind each cut. These posts are a part of Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Because people often ask writers, “What did you leave out of your book and why?” I decided to review the original manuscript of my new novel, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate, to see what ended up on the cutting room floor.

You won’t find in the book, published this week by The Feminist Press, any of the passages I’m going to share with you in this and upcoming blog posts, but the backstory behind each cut may provide a unique glimpse into the editing process.

To understand the action behind the following passage from the original manuscript, you only need know that Zach, the son of Holocaust survivors, long ago promised his mother that he would marry a Jew and raise Jewish children. Despite a fervent search for his bashert (fated Jewish mate), he falls in love with an African-American activist and talk show host named Cleo who appears in this scene. The other character, M.J., is Zach’s neighbor and close friend.

In June 1976, as his birthday approached, Zach became fixated on the number thirty-six.

“You didn’t freak out over thirty-five, why this?” M. J. asked after Zach blew out his candles.

“It’s a big Jewish number,” Zach explained. “Mystics believe there are thirty-six righteous Jews on the planet at any moment in time and it’s only because of them and their acts of decency that our world is spared from destruction. They're called lamed vavniks because the number thirty-six, in Hebrew, is lamed vav. Only God knows who they are.”

“But they know,” Cleo ventured.

“Nope. And they don’t know who each other is, either.”

M. J. grinned. “It’s like a secret society where the members don’t realize they’ve been tapped and nobody knows the handshake.”

“Kind of. The thing is, each of us is supposed to behave in the world as if we’re one of them.”

“Leave it to the Jews to get folks competing to be virtuous,” Cleo said.

“You think you might be one of them?” M. J. asked.

“The thirty-six?” Zach chuckled as he plucked out all thirty-six candles and began to cut the cake. “Not a chance.”

For me, this deletion was painful. The Talmudic concept of the lamed vav tzadikim (36 righteous ones), or nistarim (concealed ones), occupies true North on my moral compass. I love the notion that even the remote possibility of the welfare of the world resting on our deeds can lead us to greater acts of righteousness.

Why was the passage dropped? Some might infer that my publisher ruled a gratuitous detour into Jewish mysticism too “inside baseball” for the general reader. In fact, it was cut after an eagle-eyed copy editor, having graphed each of my characters’ timelines, year by year, discovered that Zach would actually be turning 35 at that point in the novel, not 36. The error was mine. And the number couldn’t simply be changed to 36 because Zach’s age had to correspond to the age of another key character in the book. Short of my rewriting several entire chapters to justify his celebrating his 36th birthday, the lamed vavnik detour had to go.

And so it did.

Read more about Letty Cottin Pogrebin here. And if you're in NYC, you can meet the author and hear her speak about her book on Wednesday, May 20th at 7 PM at Book Culture, 450 Columbus Avenue (81-82 St) in Manhattan.

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