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Excerpt: Do the KIND Thing by Daniel Lubetzky

Monday, March 30, 2015 | Permalink

We all know that KIND bars are your favorite snack on the go, but do you know the story behind this incredible brand, not to mention its Jewish connection? Today we offer a sneak peek from Do the KIND Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately, which was written by the CEO and founder of KIND Health Snacks, Daniel Lubetzky. The book will be available tomorrow, so be sure to pick up a copy!

Being the son of a Holocaust survivor marks you and makes you acutely conscious of our human frailty. My burning com­mitment to build bridges [between people and cultures] stems from a survival instinct: to pre­vent what happened to my dad from happening again to other human beings. Part of the reason I exist today is that my grandfather and my father were always kind to people.

The birth of KIND and its social mission [to make the world a little kinder] were stirred by this history. When brainstorming brand names for the healthy fruit and nut snack bar we were going to make, the name KIND particularly spoke to me because my dad’s essence, the reason he had survived the Holocaust, and the way he had lived afterward were all connected to compassion. He treated everyone as an equal, whether a bank teller or the bank president. His life taught me that kindness and empathy are the foundations on which humanity will stand or fall.

Looking back, his entire story was a string of kindness. He [my father] was born in 1930 in Riga, Latvia, and raised in Kovno, Lithuania, where my grandfather, Sioma, had a small business making corsets. My grandmother, Rosa, told me a story about my father that sums up his ability to empathize and his kindness. When he was four or five years old, a poor child knocked on the door of the family home in Lithuania. It was a cold winter night, and the child was asking for food. My father went into the kitchen to make the other child a sandwich. As he piled onto the sandwich everything that he himself would want to eat, my grandmother told him to hurry, because the child wouldn’t wait, but would go beg somewhere else. When my father returned to the front door with the sandwich, the child was gone. He ran out into the street, barefoot in the snow and without a coat, to find the other boy and give him the food.

As he grew up and war approached, my father frequently got into scrapes with local kids who would shout anti-Semitic taunts and otherwise bother the Jewish kids. When the Nazis invaded Lithuania, life for the Jews quickly worsened. My dad was nine years old when the war started.

Massive pogroms swept Lithuania as the German occupation took hold. A huge percentage of the Jews were killed at the time. One day, the porter took Germans dressed in military uniforms into my father’s apartment. They harassed and threatened to shoot my family; then they took my grandmother into another room. My dad was too young to understand what may have happened when she came out crying. He remembered that they eventually pushed everyone out of the apartment into the garden downstairs and said, “We are going to shoot you.” The porter then whispered something to the soldiers, and they walked away. The porter told my family to go upstairs. Then he came up and said, “Open up.”

In an interview my cousin Serge Bluds recorded with my dad about this incident, here was my dad’s recollection of what the porter then said to my grandfather:

“Lubetzky, I want you to know that to every apartment of this building I brought the Germans and I made them kill every Jew here. Except you. And to you, I let you live because you were a person who always would offer me your hand, shake my hand . . . you would give me a little bottle of vodka, would talk to me like a decent person, and this is why I don’t want you to die, because you are a good man.”

Then my dad continued, “This was a very important lesson to me at the time. To remember that even such an animal like this guy recognized that someone was humane to him and it paid off to be humane and not be, you know, with your nose in the air.”

The porter then commanded my family to leave the apartment before he changed his mind.

As horrible as the incident was, it was not lost on my father that my grandfather’s thoughtfulness toward others had spared his family.

My father, his family, and the remaining Kovno Jews were herded into ghettos, where they were kept under horrible and humiliating conditions. Those who survived were sent to a nearby concentration camp, which produced tinder from the local forests to feed German tanks during wartime gas shortages. That was where my father and his family ended up.

But even amid the worst circumstances, the human spirit shows itself. My father never forgot a German soldier who took risks by throwing at my dad’s feet a rotten potato that provided him the sustenance to go on. Although he could have gotten in trou­ble for helping a prisoner, that soldier risked his own safety to feed my dad. My dad always said that potato—that fleeting mo­ment of kindness—helped him stay alive.

My dad had the rare strength of being able to recall that dreadful chapter of his life without letting it embitter him. He lived a life that was fulfilled, optimistic, and positive, and, as much as it emotionally drained him, he frequently spoke about his Holocaust experiences, so that we may never permit such tragedies to befall humanity again.

Today, building bridges between people and cultures is especially important, both within companies and throughout the larger world, given all the challenges we will face in the coming years. The only way we can win against those challenges is to recognize that we have to fight on the same side. My vision is eventually to build a global movement of citizens who are proud of their own heritage as well as of our shared human values. I recognize how hard a road it will be… but are we going to give up and not try? We cannot afford to just stand idle.

From the book DO THE KIND THING: THINK BOUNDLESSLY, WORK PURPOSEFULLY, LIVE PASSIONATELY by Daniel Lubetzky, the CEO & Founder of KIND Health Snacks. Copyright © 2015 by Daniel Lubetzky. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 27, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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How to Cook Nuck a Whaatt? [INCLUDES RECIPE]

Thursday, March 26, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Katja Goldman, Judy Bernstein Bunzl, and Lisa Rotmil wrote about writing a cookbook for the JCC Manhattan and shared a recipe for lamb burgers. They are the authors of the newly published cookbook The Community Table: Recipes and Stories from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and Beyond and have been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“You want to cook nuck a whaattt?” There we were, three chefs in our favorite test kitchen thinking about our pasta chapter when Katja said she wanted to make “Knuck-a-knuck.” Judy and I were baffled having never heard of this specific Hungarian delicacy. Turns out she was referring to a simple homemade egg noodle that is cut into small pieces directly over and into a pot of rolling water. Hmm. The description sounded a lot like späetzle, Judy (whose mother-in-law was Viennese) chimed in. I went back to my Belgian grandmother who at the great age of 94 is still cooking and shopping daily and she too confirmed that these simple egg noodles were a beloved staple made several times a week at home.

Katja continued to describe that “knuck-a-knuck” could be served at a dairy meal with farmer’s cheese or as a side to a good meat or chicken dish to sop up all the sauce. She remembers the stories of her cousins, uncles, aunts, all stopping in at her great-aunt’s house on the lower east side of Manhattan on Thursday nights. There they would eat “knuck-a-knuck,” share tales from the week and leave with hugs, freshly baked challahs, a babka, and more “knuck-a-knuck” to serve on Friday night.

While Judy tried her best to get us to call them späetzle with a proper Viennese pronunciation to that umlaut, I decided to figure out where “knuck-a-knuck” came from. I easily discovered that the Hungarian word for “shhpaaeettzly” (Bunzl pronunciation) is nokedli – hence the “knuck-a-knuck.”

The only thing left to do was start cooking. We started with Katja’s grandmother’s recipe. It was simple enough – eggs, flour, kosher salt and water. Mix together “until it's shiny.” Really? Yup. Shiny and very stretchy. Katja demonstrated her grandmother’s process – she would dump the batter onto a standard dinner plate and then spread a thin amount along the plate’s edge. Using a butter knife, she would cut tiny pieces of the batter off the edge of the plate and flick them into the boiling pot of water below. So we set about it, getting all kinds of sizes of little puffed up delicious pasta mini dumplings. It was a pleasure to see just how much they puffed up once they rose to the top of the pot and cooked for the allotted 20 minutes. Grandma Regina’s final tricky tip: after each flick, dip your knife into the water in the pot, thereby keeping it clean and hot, so it easily cut through the stretchy batter.

Of course we love to play with tradition and being that this is 2015 AP flour alone didn’t seem quite right to us. So we tried the batter with half the amount whole-wheat flour and half the amount AP flour. The result – still tender but with more complex flavor and an obvious boost on the healthy eating scale. One last adaptation brought us back to those “shhpaaeettzly.” For about $15 you can buy a späetzle maker that sits atop your pot. Place some of the batter into the well on top of the contraption and slowly slide it back and forth over the metal grate attached below the well. Then, small pieces of the batter will elegantly drop into the boiling water below. You control the size of your pasta pieces based on how quickly or slowly you slide the well. That’s it. We still love the rough cut pieces, but the späetzle maker uses a lot less wrist work and avoids dipping your hand into steaming hot water.

Knuck-a-knuck – a real winner. Go figure.

Recipe: Nokedli (Hungarian Späetzle)

Serves 6 as a side

5 extra-large eggs
¼ cup water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork until smooth. Add the water and salt and beat to combine. Gradually beat in the flours ¼ cup at a time to make a soft, sticky dough. The dough will be very stretchy. If the dough is dull looking, continue beating until it shines. Let the dough rest for 10 minutes.

Spoon half the dough onto a dinner plate. With a blunt knife, move some dough towards the edge of the plate and spread it until it is about ¼ inch thick. Use the knife to scrape tiny bits of the dough off and flick them into the pot of boiling water. Dip the knife blade frequently into water to help the batter slip off. The dough will grow as it cooks, so cut very small (about ¼-inch) rectangular pieces; this is just a guideline, you can experiment with the size and shape until you find the ones that you like best. (Or use a very simple inexpensive spätzle maker; they are easy to find online and at gourmet kitchen stores.) Make sure the water stays at a boil.

After cutting in about half of the dough, cover the pot partially and boil 10 to 20 minutes, until tender throughout, depending on the size you cut. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon, and drain in a colander. Repeat with remaining dough. Salt to taste.

Katja Goldman is known as the unofficial challah teacher of the upper west side, having taught literally hundreds of men and women to bake challah. She co-authored the Empire Kosher Chicken Cookbook: 225 Easy and Elegant Recipes for Poultry and Great Side Dishes.

Lisa Rotmil has a Ph.D in Art History from The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She is an avid cook and has an interest in design.

Having studied cooking in Milan, London, New York and anywhere she found herself, Judy Bernstein Bunzl's interests in all three vocations came together with the publication of this cookbook.

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Why Do We Publish Picture Books About the Holocaust for Young Children?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 | Permalink

by Marcia Posner

Editor’s Note: We are frequently asked by parents, teachers, and others a perplexing question: At which age and at which stage it is appropriate to introduce books about the Holocaust to young children? Publishers’ suggested age ranges for their materials vary and do not always seem to match the content they present in the pages of their books. This is often reflected within our reviews, with our reviewers noting that while a book may have great value in many ways and may be filled with beautiful art or poetic language, it is not necessarily right for its intended age group. With so many children’s books on the Holocaust being published in the past few years, it’s become a confusing issue which has led to a staggering number of inquiries. Therefore, we decided to consult an expert in the field of Holocaust literature for her take on this important topic.

Before we present books to children from ages 4-8 on a subject such as the Holocaust, we should provide stories about playing fairly, choosing sides, bullying, and standing up for a classmate or animal that is being mistreated. Each person passes through learning stages depending on physical and mental characteristics and upon the interaction of individual and environmental factors like whether they have become familiarized with the concepts of taking sides, helping a weaker being,bullying, etc. Developmental and emotional maturity of children vary because of the above, and according to age. Even when the words of stories are able to be read by bright younger children, that does not mean that analytical and critical thought is present. It occurs later, by Grade Five at the earliest, for the brightest, most mature students. It depends on their schooling, reading ability, home experiences and the communities in which they live. We can give children books on parent figures and children being mistreated by other adults, but not until they are at least 10 years of age. There are several stages to understanding what one is reading and why the action is happening. Why do we think that children under 10 or 12 are ready for this? The next step in reading incorporates more than one point of view and includes motivation for the action and the fuller development of the characters in the story. The reader has to be able to deal with the layers of facts and add concepts to those acquired earlier. Usually, this begins in early high school.

So why are we writing, illustrating, reviewing and buying books on a subject that belongs at the earliest for a child of ten years old for younger children? There are at least five recent picture books of stories about concentration camps, beautifully written and illustrated. They are not for the picture book group (3-6 or 4-8), but for children from the age of ten and up, who are well able to read full length books and may not read picture books. Authors write and illustrators draw and publishers publish stories about the Holocaust for children who are not ready to receive them to make money, and we all fall into their trap. Some of them are lovely and well done, but in my opinion, premature.

Often books of this type are used by teachers of older children when they present the Holocaust in the classroom. In that setting, they have a more practical use. Books of this type are perfect to use with children of ages 10-14 as the language used in these books is usually too mature for picture book readers but just right for slightly older children. A photograph is more static. The illustrations in these books utilize color and other tools of art to communicate danger, despair, fright, and soon—values that are not communicated in photographs, but that impact older children immediately. Straight text communicates facts. Picture story books communicate feelings as the illustrations enter their emotional portal.

The message is that when teaching the Holocaust, start with a picture story book for any age. It readies the children emotionally to learn more about this topic.

Marcia W. Posner, Ph.D., of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, is the library and program director, and author of the play Smoke and Mirrors: Delusion and Despair: The Story of Terezin, now on tour among Long Island Public Libraries as a follow-up to the best selling novel The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman.

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On Writing a Cookbook for the JCC Manhattan [INCLUDES RECIPE]

Tuesday, March 24, 2015 | Permalink

Katja Goldman, Judy Bernstein Bunzl, and Lisa Rotmil are the authors of the new cookbook The Community Table: Recipes and Stories from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and Beyond. They are blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Really? Another cookbook? Another Jewish cookbook? Well, actually yes.

This one started a few years back when JCC Manhattan was approaching a major milestone (a 10 year anniversary). Judy Bernstein Bunzl was the one who first imagined doing a cookbook to celebrate the vision and mission of the JCC Manhattan on this occasion. We had no idea how many years it would take to actually complete the task!

Judy asked Katja Goldman to join her right away because she is Judy’s go-to food and gardening soulmate. Katja then insisted that we needed Lisa Rotmil to complete our team. Thus our book, The Community Table: Recipes and Stories from the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan and Beyond, was born.

Who knew that it would be three years of cooking, tasting, testing again, writing, and then styling every photo shoot? While some might worry that three chefs is too many in the kitchen, for us, it was the perfect number for creativity and culinary inspiration. Indeed, coming from different cooking styles, different kitchens, and different palates, our micro-community was a template for the larger community we were cooking for.

So what did we come up with? Well there is certainly a lot to be inspired by. Jews have been cooking for centuries in lands far and wide. Often what constitutes Jewish cooking is some amalgamation of the resident culture mixed up with Jewish tradition. Think carciofi al guidea, the Roman artichoke dish associated strongly with that Jewish community. Or chicken paprikash from Hungary, served without the sour cream. This book revels in that kind of adaptation. We’ve included recipes from Sri Lanka, an Indian masala, corn bread from Atlanta, and pot-au-feu from Alsace (one of the oldest Jewish communities in Europe). We also wanted to reflect how we cook right now, with an emphasis on grains, vegetables, salads, roasted meats, and fish. Plus we couldn’t leave behind the traditional Jewish classics we grew up with and many that we’ve updated to turn them into something new—adaptations for the twenty-first century in New York City and beyond. There is a lot to sample!

We are asked repeatedly what inspired some of our favorite recipes. We have so many to choose from, but here is a great example of how our Iraqi Lamb Burger came into being:

On a rainy day in New York City, we all yearned for a burger. “Let’s not use beef,” was the starting point. With the three of us coming from Ashkenazi backgrounds, we decided to try something different and draw upon Middle Eastern influences. We also love lamb, so that became the springboard for our thinking. Throw in fresh mint, allspice, pine nuts, cinnamon, and of course Italian parsley, and the result was an unexpectedly delicious harmonious mouthful. And of course we didn’t stop there, because every great burger has its own special condiments. So in our book, we also give you recipes for Mint Pesto and Caramelized Saffron Onions.

As we were writing the book, we all realized how much we love it when recipes discuss variations of the base recipe. Don’t like lamb? Substitute beef. Craving a grandma’s stuffed cabbage? Use the meat mixture and just wrap it up in cabbage leaves. And we tried to do the same thing. Directions found in our book.

Some may ask: what do the main values of JCC Manhattan—diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, and a fresh new way of thinking of Jewish life—have to do with food? As it turns out, everything! The Community Table is filled with stories and recipes that connect our past with our future, encouraging us to explore tastes and fragrances from around the world because, after all, that is what Jews have always done.

The cookbook tells a story of JCCs throughout the country who welcome thousands into their doors each day, often using food as the vehicle by teaching how to grow it, prepare it, and learn about its role in Jewish life. Altogether The Community Table celebrates food as a tool to help build community, make new friends, learn a new skill, and find strength in being a part of something larger than oneself.

Recipe: Lamb Burgers

Serves 6

Mint Pesto

3 cups packed fresh mint leaves
1 1/4 cups olive oil
1 to 2 teaspoons honey
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (optional)

Burgers

6 tablespoons pine nuts
2 pounds ground lamb
½ cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
½ cup finely chopped fresh mint leaves
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
2 to 3 teaspoons kosher salt
1½ teaspoons ground allspice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ cup ice water
2 tablespoons bread crumbs or matzah meal
6 pita breads

To make the pesto, combine all the ingredients in a food processor and purée. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside. (The pesto lasts in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to two weeks).

In a small pan over medium-low heat, toast the pine nuts, watching carefully and stirring, until lightly colored, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.

To make the burgers, preheat the broiler or lightly oil a grill pan. In a medium bowl, combine the pine nuts, lamb, parsley, mint, onion, salt, allspice, and cinnamon. Knead well by hand, squeezing the meat through your fingers. Add the ice water and continue mixing by hand. Add the bread crumbs and knead well again until the meat is very soft and all the ingredients are well blended, about 3 minutes. Shape the meat into six 2½-inch patties by first rolling it between your palms into 1-to-1½-inch-diameter balls and then flattening them.

Transfer the patties to a broiling pan and broil, turning once, until brown and cooked through, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Alternatively, grill over high heat for 2 to 4 minutes per side. Remove from the heat and set on a serving plate.

Before serving, warm the pitas in foil in a 300°F oven for a few minutes. Serve the burgers with the pita, mint pesto, and saffron caramelized onions.

Katja Goldman is known as the unofficial challah teacher of the upper west side, having taught literally hundreds of men and women to bake challah. She co-authored the Empire Kosher Chicken Cookbook: 225 Easy and Elegant Recipes for Poultry and Great Side Dishes.

Lisa Rotmil has a Ph.D in Art History from The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She has worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She is an avid cook and has an interest in design.

Having studied cooking in Milan, London, New York and anywhere she found herself, Judy Bernstein Bunzl's interests in all three vocations came together with the publication of this cookbook.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

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Communicating the Beauty

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall wrote about how on how pluralism strengthens Judaism and shared the backstory behind her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Roberta is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the United States, and even in Israel, Judaism cannot be a one-size-fits-all religion. The degree of variations that currently exist simply cannot be undone, nor should they be. But all variations need to be more attuned to their target audience and how they can best serve the needs of their constituents. This requires understanding the realities of the larger societal culture and tailoring Jewish experience to serve these realities. And it requires being open to trying new and different ways of reaching potential followers, including non-Jews who are involved with Jews or otherwise open to learning about the beauty of the tradition.

Although the Jewish tradition includes both Jewish religious law, known as halakhah, as well as cultural elements, many modern Jews very much enjoy the cultural components of Judaism but are not so keen on the law part. This is particularly true when the legal demands are seen as placing burdens on people that are perceived as irrelevant to our modern lifestyle. That said, when the legal ingredients are completely lost, it is impossible to capture, and to pass down, the flavor and uniqueness of the traditional recipe.

More effective educational strategies are needed in most Jewish communities, particularly those in which the observance of halakhah is not a governing focus. I offer here two possible suggestions for further contemplation. One suggestion is to emphasize more how the demands of traditional Jewish practice comport with modern values that many Jews today embrace. For example, the culture of the twenty-first century furnishes appealing reasons to observe cornerstone traditions such as the dietary laws and Shabbat. Today, more kosher food options exist than ever before and there is a popular perception that these options are healthier. It has even been reported that more Millennials are keeping kosher than their baby boomer parents given their concern with environment and sustainability. As for Shabbat, in this day and age of continuous electronic connection, a mandated disconnection of one day a week can be seen as a welcomed relief.

A second suggestion focuses on unbundling the concept of “Jewish pride.” It seems to me that there is significant potential to harness the concept of “Jewish pride” so that it can serve as a focal point for educating American Jews. According to the 2013 Pew Report, a comprehensive study of the American Jewish population, 94% of the American Jewish population claimed that they are proud to be Jewish. Jewish pride and Jewish survival go hand in hand because people want to insure continuity of what they take pride in.

It is imperative that Jewish clergy and professionals develop an innovative yet effective strategy for educating this group, particularly those individuals who claim pride in their heritage but who are not religiously observant. Initially, such a strategy must underscore why religious tradition is indeed a fundamental part of what they are claiming a sense of pride in. But this is not sufficient because the needed education must also instill a love of the tradition’s beauty—both the legal and the cultural. It must persuade people that the Jewish tradition still has relevance for their lives, even if they are not living lives that are governed by Jewish law. In short, identified Jews are educable Jews. We have the numbers but now we need to develop the blueprint.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies. For more reflections from Kwall, visit her Facebook page here.

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Bagels and Groucho

Friday, March 20, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her thoughts on autobiographical novels and her two decades living in the Midwest as a “passing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Q: How can you tell if a man is Aryan?
A: He’s Aryan if he has the towering height of Goebbels, the slim physique of Goering, and the blond good looks of Hitler.

Okay, okay, it’s not the funniest joke you’ve ever heard. But it killed in 1944, and in more ways than one: If you lived in Nazi Germany, telling it could have cost you your life. Political jokes were essentially illegal in the Third Reich, and you could actually be hauled in to a so-called joke court for telling one. Punishment ranged from imprisonment to death.

Needless to say, this attitude toward jokes wasn’t unique to that rancid regime. Remember Seth Rogan and James Franco’s run-in with North Korea? Very few dictators, it turns out, are fans of skewering wit. That’s why Elie Wiesel says, “The best answer to fanaticism is a sense of humor.”

It’s true that humor is a formidable weapon. It’s also the only weapon I can think of that simultaneously flays the oppressor and provides sustenance to the oppressed. The persecuted, the denigrated, the outcast, those whose humanity is systemically dismissed, denied, or snuffed out, have always told these kinds of jokes even in the face of prison or worse, just as the starving have always stolen bread. The latter provides essential nourishment for the body; the former, it seems, provides essential nourishment for the spirit. Both food and humor turn out to be human necessities.

The food and the humor also happen to be two of my favorite things about being Jewish. We’re much more than those things, of course. But still...nova on bagels and Groucho Marx, Seinfeld and kasha knishes. What’s not to love?

When my agent was pitching A Reunion of Ghosts to editors, he described it as a funny book about suicide. Me, I’d have tweaked that description a little. I see Reunion as a very serious book about the twentieth century as embodied in the stories of four generations of a single family, some members based on historical persons and others of my own invention. The book is about suicide, yes, but it’s just as much about war and random gun violence and cancer and AIDS and genocide and diaspora and alcoholism and isolation and mental illness and sexism and assassination and bigotry and the human capacity for cruelty and pretty much everything else that can go wrong as we make our way through this Vale of Tears.

But I also knew that the narrators of this story would be sisters for whom humor was simultaneously weapon and comfort. They’d love puns and word play. They’d make jokes in the midst of grief and defeat. They’d invent riddles like this one:

Q: Where can you run into all the suffering souls of this sorrowful world?
A: At a Job's fair

We are all, even the most blessed of us, versions of Job. Even the luckiest of us suffer unfathomable loss. There’s not a one of us who doesn’t die in the end.

Yet despite everything, most of us find opportunities to laugh. Bad jokes. Puns. Cat videos.

A generous reviewer has said that A Reunion of Ghost “may sound unutterably bleak...but the novel is not, and it’s filled with...humor.” When I first read those words, I couldn’t help notice that they don’t only describe my novel. They also describe life.

“Praise to life,” writes the poet Adrienne Rich, “though its windows blew shut on the breathing-room of ones we knew and loved.” Sooner or later the windows will blow shut on our own breathing-rooms, too. We know this. And yet, despite that death sentence, we form friendships and fall in love and raise children and are drawn to art and movies and literature, and we tell jokes and we laugh. With full knowledge of how all this will end, we are silly and irreverent. In the face of annihilation we are comedians.

Praise to life! And pass the knishes.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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Some Thoughts About Autobiographical Novels

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Judith Claire Mitchell wrote about her two decades living in the Midwest as a “passing” Jew. The author of A Reunion of Ghosts and The Last Day of the War, Judith is an English professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I’m sometimes asked if my novel, A Reunion of Ghosts, is autobiographical. The first time I heard this question I was taken aback. A Reunion of Ghosts is essentially a long suicide note written by three unhappy sisters whose family legacy has left them with a shared burden of shame and guilt. Delph, the youngest sister, believes they are being visited by the sins of their great grandfather—a chemist who developed and personally deployed the first poison gases used in war. Lady and Vee, the two older sisters, don’t believe that they’re cursed, exactly, but they sure don’t think that they’re blessed. The sisters are often witty and droll—dark humor is their saving grace—but they have dreary jobs and drinking problems and no real friends and zero love lives and poor Vee has cancer and... well, things are just not going well.

So what, then, I wonder, are people asking when they want to know if this book is autobiographical? Are they inquiring as to whether I, too, am chronically miserable and alcoholic and suicidal? For the record, my answer is: Unless I am being forced to watch a sporting event on TV, no. None of the characters in A Reunion of Ghosts are inspired by my own life or even by people I know or have known.

And yet, I have to admit I’ve put parts of me into those sisters. The sisters and I are similar in age. They live in a part of New York City where I once lived. They go to the college I attended. Lady has the same wooden dishes that were my first set of dishes, both of us figuring we’d have them forever because they’d never break. Neither of us had considered the splinter problem.

In terms of personality and behavior, the sisters and I share other attributes. Like me, they crack jokes in the midst of dark times. Like me, they are introverted and once they’re home, they have a hard time going out again. Also we share an obsession with certain German-Jewish chemists circa World War I.

This is the way novels come to life. The novelist imbues her characters and their environs with all sorts of borrowed flotsam and jetsam from real life. Some of these details are small—a photograph of a dog attending a wedding that the author once saw—and some are large—the author is diagnosed with cancer (she is fine now) and decides to share the illness with a character. That doesn’t mean the character is the author in any truly meaningful way. For the author, her own cancer is a disturbing reality, but her character’s cancer is metaphor.

And yet, even while I demur at the suggestion that I’m writing some sort of thinly-disguised memoir, I do understand the impulse to ask if a work of fiction is autobiographical even when it seems abundantly clear that it isn’t. The author may not have experienced the specific events she writes about; she may not have had her heart broken in the same exact way as a character has; she may never have been abandoned by a parent; she may even be merrily writing about chemists without having taken a chemistry course in her life. But if she’s going to breathe life into her characters, she has to find a way slip into their skins and see the world through their eyes. That calls for an act of the imagination. Fiction, of course, is such an act. But so is empathy such an act. For me, writing fiction requires empathy for every single character in the book—including the villains. Especially the villains. In fact, if I’m truly writing empathetically, there are no villains.

I think, then, that when readers ask if a story is autobiographical, what they’re actually asking is, How did you manage to make these characters feel whole and complex and idiosyncratic and human? Did you borrow from your life? Or did you actually imagine and make a new life?

It’s a wonderful question when you think of it that way. It’s a reminder that novelists, in writing about people who are not like themselves, can persuade readers to care about people who are not like themselves. Our fictional characters exist not because they are us, but because they are born of our understanding of the human condition with all its sorrows and joys and irrationalities. In that way, then, these characters do come from a deeply personal part of the author. In that way, perhaps all novels are autobiographical.

A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Judith Claire Mitchell has received fellowships from the James Michener/Copernicus Society, the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the Arts Institute of the University of Wisconsin, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Madison with her husband, the artist Don Friedlich.

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The Jewish People Are Like a Symphony!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Roberta Rosenthal Kwall shared the backstory behind her newest book, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition. Roberta is the Raymond P. Niro Professor of Law at DePaul University College of Law. She is blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Many years ago, one of my students—an Orthodox Jew—told me that his grandfather used to say that the Jewish people are like a symphony: all parts are needed for the whole to function well. I cherish that sentiment and strongly believe in its truth. A pluralistic approach to Judaism does not merely tolerate differences, but embraces them as vital to the continuity and health of the Jewish people—indeed, differences of opinion are the backbone of Talmudic discourse. Today, the left end of the spectrum attempts to push the boundaries by incorporating what it sees as needed change; the right end counters this tendency by pushing back against innovation to ensure continued authenticity; and the middle seeks to navigate between these approaches. When all sectors appreciate the good-faith function of the each position, the Jewish people are at their strongest and maintain a sense of unity without uniformity. In short, pluralism does not see Judaism in black-and white-terms; rather, it values different perspectives within the discourse and understands that a multiplicity of perspectives strengthens (and does not diminish) the whole.

Throughout the time I was working on The Myth of the Cultural Jew, I had the good fortune to be co-directing a center for Jewish law and Judaic Studies at DePaul. The aspect of my work with the center that I most enjoyed was planning the center’s annual interdenominational program. This program typically featured a panel of Jewish clergy or professional leaders representing a spectrum of thought, discussing issues of interest to a wide range of Jews. The first program, for example, focused on the seminal issue of “who is a Jew” and featured a Reform and Conservative rabbi discussing their movements’ respective positions concerning whether a child’s status as a Jew should be determined according to only the mother’s religion rather than that of either parent. Subsequent programs included panels of rabbis from all major Jewish movements, and one program even featured an all-female lineup of clergy and spiritual advisors. The Jewish professionals who participated in this unique initiative provided me with tremendous insight and inspiration throughout the course of my work.

I am also grateful for many friends and acquaintances spanning the spectrum of Jewish practice and thinking. Not only has my work benefitted from their diverse perspectives, but I have grown personally from my ability to engage with people representing a wide variety of Jewish viewpoints. It is unfortunate that all too often, Jews tend to associate on a social basis mostly with other Jews from their own section of the orchestra, even if they have contact with a wider range of players professionally. As an academic, I feel blessed to share my love of the Jewish tradition with a wide audience of people through my teaching and writing; I am also very grateful that in my personal life, I count as good friends members of all Jewish and unaffiliated identities.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall earned her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and received her undergraduate degree from Brown University. Currently she is completing a Master's Degree in Jewish Studies. Check back later this week for her suggestions on Jewish education that may facilitate the Jewish people continuing to make beautiful music together!

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