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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, May 01, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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Writing the Mechitzah

Friday, May 01, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about water and the mikvah in Judaism as well as the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

My tormented relationship with the mechitzah sabotaged numerous drafts of my novel Washing the Dead. This came as a surprise to me because it had been years since I'd given thought to the wooden barrier that separated the men's and women's sections in the Orthodox synagogue of my youth.

As a child the mechitzah never bothered me, perhaps because I was an unusually tall girl, and from a young age I could see over it. I liked sitting with my mother and my friends and never pondered this gender segregation, not even when my family had to join a Conservative synagogue in order for me to become a bat mitzvah.

My first semester in college, however, a fiery philosophy professor introduced me to the likes of Sandra Bartky and Andrea Dworkin, and a feminist was born. I became attuned to the myriad ways women were marginalized. I scoffed at the Orthodox rationale that women did not need to perform rituals in the synagogue because we are more spiritually evolved or that our energies are best directed toward keeping the dietary laws, educating the children, and lighting the Sabbath candles. I steered clear of mechitzahs and held on tightly to my resentment until well into writing my novel.

Washing the Dead is set in a Orthodox Milwaukee synagogue and tells the story of the main character Barbara's fierce yearning to return to this community from which she was exiled. My smart early readers all said that they didn't understand Barbara's desire to return to a world I'd been describing so critically. I couldn't locate the criticism on the page until my daughter and I attended a bar mitzvah at a shul with a mechitzah. She went off to find her friends, and I stood alone staring out into this sea of women, pretty hats covering their hair, their heads leaning into each other during conversation. Memories flooded me. The women's section was the beating heart of my childhood shul, where the regulars shared news of pregnancies, divorces, and illnesses and deaths in their families. And these women had kept track of me.

Lucette Lagnado described my sentiments beautifully in her memoir The Arrogant Years, "What I'd failed to realize was that for the women of my childhood, the world within our closed-off area was every bit as rich and vivid as the universe beyond it; and the barrier in fact fostered and intensified feelings of kinship and intimacy. Inside was a world that was remarkably collegial and embracing and kind."

After the bar mitzvah, I went home and reread my pages, and I understood how my disdain for the traditions of my former shul was insidiously embedded in the simplest descriptions. I, and perhaps the spirit of Andrea Dworkin, were talking over Barbara, inserting political commentary about the mechitzah.

Unlike Barbara, I was never exiled from my community. But in the moment of returning to the mechitzah with my daughter, I felt a pull toward a spiritual home that I'd left, a home that I do not wish to return to, but that tugs at me enough to write, with truest feeling, the longing my character felt for the mechitzah of her youth.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at

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Sacred Pools

Wednesday, April 29, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Brafman wrote about the tahara, Jewish burial rituals. She is the author of the debut novel Washing the Dead and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I often assign my creative writing students the exercise of writing about a freighted or sacred physical space in their lives. I am also in the habit of writing to my own prompts, and this is how the mikvah found its way into my novel.

Although I have friends who have submerged their bodies in these holy waters to convert to Judaism, heal from a surgery, or comply with the family purity rituals, I do not visit the mikvah. I've been fascinated with these waters, though, since I was a young girl and my friends and I would roam around our Orthodox synagogue during services, eating stale cookies set out for us in the kitchen and playing freeze tag in the alley. We were told to avoid a staircase off the side of the sanctuary at all costs. The steps led down to a sacred pool of water that the women immersed themselves in once a month. My mother did not go to the mikvah, so my limited knowledge of this ritual and my active imagination forced me to fill in the blanks.

We stopped attending shul regularly when I became a serious swimmer and replaced services with Saturday swim meets. I trained for them at our high school, which housed two pools: a shiny new one with a diving well and light flooding large glass windows, and an old narrow one with dark water and bad acoustics. We called this pool the dungeon, and we spoke of the boy who had died in these waters years ago. From that day on, I imagined the boy swimming with me when we practiced in the dungeon. Sometimes he scared me, and other times I welcomed his presence and wondered about his life before he passed.

My novel, Washing the Dead, is set in an Orthodox shul in Milwaukee. A mysterious benefactor has donated a large mansion along Lake Michigan to the community, complete with a swimming pool in the basement that the rabbi and his wife have converted to a mikvah. The book opens when the protagonist, Barbara, catches her mother smoking in the mikvah during Shabbat services, resulting in a shocking indiscretion for which the community exiles Barbara's family. Barbara spends the rest of the book trying to forgive her mother, but first, she must solve the mystery of her mother's attachment to these waters.

Water cries out to me. I've never lived more than a mile from a body of water, be it Lake Michigan, the Pacific Ocean, and now the Potomac River. In researching the mikvah and burial rituals featured in Washing the Dead, I came to understand the healing and purifying powers of water. It can hold both secrets and what is needed to repair their damage.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine,the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at

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Interview: Tony Schumacher

Tuesday, April 28, 2015 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Darkest Hour is an alternate history, a psychological study, and a thriller all rolled into one fantastic book. It begins with Germany having defeated Europe and now the occupier of Great Britain in 1946. The protagonist is a London police sergeant, John Henry Rossett, a highly decorated British war veteran, who is assigned to the Office of Jewish Affairs, a branch of the SS. He fools himself into believing the false propaganda that his job is to round Jews up for deportation to France as farm laborers. He is a good man who assists evil until he finds a young Jewish child, Jacob, hiding in an abandoned building. Hoping to salvage his soul and gain redemption, Rossett becomes determined to save this innocent boy. The novel takes off from here where the reader is exposed to a moralistic thread in a plot that is action-packed and gripping.

Elise Cooper: This book is a powerful reminder of how easily people will do terrible things to survive. Do you agree?

Tony Schumacher: I got the idea from a documentary on television. It showed a photograph from World War II of an English policeman in the Channel Islands, just off the coast of France, occupied by the Germans. This policeman was holding a car door open for a German officer, where both he and the German officer were smiling. It was a propaganda picture taken by the Germans to show they weren't such bad guys. When I saw the photo, I was momentarily angry with the policeman. I'd been a policeman for ten years, and to me, this officer had disgraced the uniform. But almost immediately, I realized I couldn't think like that. This guy was probably told 'Open that door and smile. If you don't, you'll get shot. So, open the door.' And to stay alive, he'd done what he was told to do. After all, he might have a family at home and wanted to live. So I began wondering what I would have done in that circumstance. Once you cross that line, it begins to recede. Each time you're told to do something abhorrent, that line moves back a bit more. You compromise your values, your integrity. And you have to weigh how much you want to stay alive against doing something you find despicable.

EC: Is Kate, your female main character, based on the above analogy?

TS: Yes. She was a double spy, who did work for the Nazis, and gave them information. Actually, I think she worked for herself. She was interested in her own situation until the boy Jacob came into her life. He affected her with his innocence and pure trust.

EC: Would you classify this as an alternate history?

TS: I did base it on reality, the German occupation of France during World War II. Many French did not rise up and went along to get along. I wanted to explore that from the English point of view. There is the main character, Rossett, saying he was just doing his job and didn’t know. I played off the statements made by many Germans after the war that said they never knew what was happening. They just pretended that they didn’t know, and lied to themselves. How could they not know, living just beyond the trees of the concentration camps?

EC: Can you discuss Rossett and Jacob’s relationship?

TS: I had a number of scenes where Jacob takes John Henry Rossett’s hand. The readers know it is “dirty,” but Jacob believes John will do the right thing by him. I get the sense readers wanted to hate John, but didn’t because of Jacob’s view of him. Jacob becomes Rossett’s guardian angel giving him some of his soul back, forcing him to explore within himself. Although Jacob is a character who does not speak a lot in the book, he is a thread through the whole story. Jacob made John recognize and confront that monster inside of himself. John carried a lot of guilt and was tortured by his own actions of doing nothing.

EC: Did you base the German SS Officer, Ernst Koehler, on anyone you knew?

TS: I had a lot of different jobs in my life. One in particular influenced me with this character. When I worked on a cruise ship in the 1960s, in the gift shop there was this Japanese guy who would come in almost every day, speaking broken English. I asked him where he learnt English and he told me he was a guard on the Burma Railway, called “The Death Railway.” The British POWs were forced to build it and were beaten, starved, and tortured. This guy poked me in the chest because I thought of him as such a nice guy. His ‘niceness’ made me think of Koehler. People might like him on the surface and think of him as charming, but in reality he is a killer, a nightmare.

EC: Did you draw upon any of your other job experiences?

TS: Being a cop was definitely one. It's easy to write about how people react to a policeman when you've been one. I dipped heavily into those experiences. I worked at a garbage dump for a while, and met an eclectic group of people there. Actually, I think I've drawn from every job I've ever had. I've had jobs that are looked down upon, and others that are respected. I've tried to take something from every one of them for my writing. The main thing is, I've tried to make my characters real people.

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

TS: Obviously good entertainment. But also, I want them to explore themselves as much as the characters in the book did, to look within. They should ask themselves what would they have done? If someone does one good action does that nullify all the bad things they have done before? Personally, I do not think so since they are still stained.

EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?

TS: It is a sequel. The theme is what would you do for a friend even though they are evil. It is more about the struggles of individuals. A lot of questions will be answered. Unfortunately that is all I can say without giving up more of the plot of this book.

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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Washing the Dead: The Wonder of Ritual

Monday, April 27, 2015 | Permalink

Michelle Brafman's debut novel Washing the Dead is being published this week by Prospect Park Books. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

I am a fairly observant Jew with a decent Jewish education, yet I only learned about the tahara, our burial rituals, eight years ago, when a friend casually mentioned them to me. And now, even after I've written a novel featuring the tahara, the holiness of this deed continues to reveal itself to me in waves.

The tahara is called the "good deed of truth" because tending to the dead is a favor that the recipient can neither acknowledge nor repay. I won't lie, though, my fascination with this righteous act initially stemmed from its mystery. The chevra kadisha often operates as a secret society in order to preserve the anonymity of the mitzvah, and the rites are sensual: sponge-bathing, rinsing, shrouding, placing dirt in a pine casket.

In researching the novel, I approached the head of my synagogue's chevra kadisha, and we talked for hours about the ritual. She invited me to help perform a tahara, informing me that this was the ultimate act of compassion. I understood this intellectually, I really did. When I entered the preparation room, however, my brain switched to writer mode, mentally recording every detail: the scent of the body, the canisters of toothpicks we would use to clean under the nails, the narrow width of the coffin.

In the early days of describing this book, when I told Jews and non-Jews of this ritual, I felt as though I were at a sleepover, sharing a scary, titillating ghost story. It took many drafts for me to discover the core of the book: my character Barbara's attempt to find her way back to the spiritual and emotional home torched by her mother's indiscretion. The inciting incident is when Barbara is invited back to her Orthodox community to perform a tahara on the woman who stepped in to mother her after her own mother's abandonment.

It wasn't until I read the tahara passage aloud for the first time in public that I realized performing this ritual was the only way for Barbara to loosen a brick in the wall she'd built between herself and her mother and her religious home. This tactile deed fired an atrophied muscle of her heart. In his short story "A Father's Story" Andre Dubus describes the "wonder of ritual:" "For ritual allows those who cannot will themselves out of the secular to perform the spiritual, as dancing allows the tongue-tied man a ceremony of love."

Shortly after the galleys of my book arrived, I had coffee with my chevra kadisha guide. We spoke more about the tahara and other Jewish rituals, and though I listened carefully, I knew I was also filing away some of her words, as I do an idea for a story. Later I will make meaning of these mitzvot, the doing and telling, and the gorgeous mystery of the fusion of the two.

Michelle Brafman's essays and short stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Slate, Tablet, Lilith Magazine, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins MA in Writing Program. Visit her website at

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, April 24, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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What the Lifetime Adaptation of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent Missed

Friday, April 24, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michal Lemberger wrote about turning King David into a villain and Lot's wife and the other nameless women of the Bible. She is the author of the recently published book After Abel and Other Stories and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

When I began writing the stories that make up my collection, After Abel and Other Stories, I wasn’t thinking about other fiction writers who had reimagined biblical tales. I had been steeped in biblical scholarship for so many years that my mind was filled with it as I sat down to write. Within months, though, word started leaking about a miniseries based on Anita Diamant’s beloved novel, The Red Tent. That was soon followed by advertisements, and then, of course, the movie itself.

I read the novel—about Jacob, his four wives, and in the central role, his daughter, Dinah—when it first came out but hadn’t revisited it since. The arrival of the film adaptation seemed perfect, almost like a sign that my timing was right—that I was responding to something larger happening in the realm of stories about the Bible. It also gave me a chance to reread the book and see how the people at the Lifetime channel had adapted it and to reflect on why these kinds of stories still speak to us and why they remain important.

Back in 1997, some readers were scandalized by what they saw as the book’s impiety and its frank sexual depictions, but over the years, The Red Tent has lost its shock value. Still, I was shocked by how little about The Red Tent the miniseries left intact and what the filmmakers chose to keep.

Diamant’s book attempted to give more fullness to the experience of women than the Torah affords them. What drew readers by the millions is how she filled in the lives of Rachel, Leah, Dinah, and the other women with whom they live and die. She gave each woman a distinct personality: Leah became forceful and competent; Rachel is beautiful (as in the Torah itself) but a bit self-involved; and Dinah emerges as a watchful younger child in a large family, a beloved daughter who is nonetheless expected to follow the rules of her mother’s home. Notably, the women practice their older pagan-inspired rites alongside Jacob’s belief in his father’s God. In what is perhaps the most important point made by the novel, these belief systems peacefully coexist.

The problem with the Lifetime version is how the novel’s nuance is flattened.

Dinah is somewhat passive in the novel, which allows her to be the reader’s stand-in, watching everything unfold around her. But in what passes for a strong female character in so many movies, she becomes a brash heroine in the miniseries.

Lifetime’s Rachel remains moony-eyed from start to finish, filling Dinah’s head with decidedly modern notions of romance, especially that tired trope of all-encompassing love at first sight. And, not for nothing, the women’s syncretistic belief system is now set against Jacob’s rigid, even angry, monotheism. All that’s left of Diamant’s original is the title and cast of characters.

The upshot is that we’re given a story we’ve seen so many times before, one in which there is only one plotline for women to follow—that of romantic love. Despite the bloody ending to Dinah’s romance, she is set on the same path as every other boyfriend-seeking heroine of recent rom-coms.

It’s been seventeen years since The Red Tent was published. In that time, Diamant’s vision doesn’t raise eyebrows anymore. It has become naturalized and accepted. It’s too bad that Lifetime scrapped it, because she managed to give the story, its female characters, and family life a sense of complexity that it was missing before and that has been stripped away again.

Female characters and experience can be reduced in any number of ways: Dinah becomes smugly virtuous and headstrong, which may be hackneyed, but at least has some redeeming value. But in truth, she’s one-dimensional, her stubbornness put to use only to snag the heart of a prince.

The search for romantic love is a universal theme in stories of all sorts—novels, movies, songs. It’s powerful. We do crave love. Experiencing love is rewarding. But women’s lives are so much richer—and sadder, harder, more complicated, or conflicted—than many of the most enduring and popular narratives would have us believe. We needed The Red Tent seventeen years ago. We still need to give women the texture and variety that the stories of their lives deserve.

Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more

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Emerging Voices Interview: Shulem Deen

Thursday, April 23, 2015 | Permalink

by Sam Shuman

Shulem Deen is the author of the recently published memoir All Who Go Do Not Return (Graywolf Press). From his apartment in Ann Arbor, Sam Shuman called Shulem Deen at an undisclosed Au Bon Pain in Manhattan and had the following conversation:

Sam Shuman: I think that sometimes the way in which people are put into this genre of OTD or ex-Hasidic memoir forecloses questions around the writer and the craft of what they’re doing. There’s a lot of attention on the content, but I think sometimes the stylistic elements and the craft that you’re engaging in as a writer falls by the wayside.

Shulem Deen: I’m very strongly of the opinion that if you’re going use an art form to tell your story be passionate about that art form as an art form, not just think, “Oh, I want to get my story out and therefore, okay, fine l’ll write it because it looks like an easy thing to do.”

I get a lot of people who say to me, “It’s so great that you wrote your story. I hope to publish mine too one day.” I try not to get too irritated and usually I just say, “Oh, that’s absolutely great. You should do it.”

But the truth is, what I really want to say is: “are you passionate about writing? Do you appreciate good writing? Do you write? You know you want to write a book, but have you written an essay? Have you done something short? Do you care about crafting sentences? Do you care about storytelling?”

In my case, I wanted to write a book. I had an aspiration to be a writer. As of the day my book was published, I am a writer. But I had an aspiration to be a writer, not to tell my story. This was a very difficult choice when I actually decided that my first book was going to be a memoir. I wanted to write a novel. But I kind of realized fairly quickly that my agent would be very willing to represent me for a memoir. For a novel, I would have to write it first. Then do all that work, learn how to write, make sure it’s really good, have it stand out, then try to shop for an agent who would then try to shop for a publisher. Add to that the fact that I’m a nobody. I don’t come from an MFA writing program where people develop certain connections. I came from nowhere.

Given the realities of how art and commerce intersect, these are important considerations—especially if you want to use your art not only as art, but also in some way to sustain yourself. You want to be able to make art. And in order to make art, it needs to give something in return and pay your rent. There are very few people who can make art purely just for making art and not care whether they will be making money from it.

We all know the cliché is the starving artist. It’s not practical to starve. Because if you starve, you won’t be able to do any more art.

Originally when I was writing, people would say to me, “What are you writing?” And I would say, “You know, I’m writing a memoir about my experience of growing up in the Hasidic world and then leaving it.” People would say, “Oh, that’s been done.”

It’s not really about the newness of this story, it’s about writing a really compelling narrative. And the art of it. And the craft of it.

SS: I have a vague memory of you telling me of another title for the memoir when you were earlier in the writing phase. Wasn’t it sup­posed to be entitled "Shaygetz"?

SD: Originally my agent and I had a discussion. The first discussion, we talked about submitting a proposal. And he said, “OK, we’re going to have to think of a title. Do you have any thoughts on it?” as I was leaving.

And I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve been kind of struggling. I’m not sure what to call this book.”

And he said, “But what kind of words come to mind?”

“I don’t know, maybe something with the word, ‘shaygetz,’ in it.”

And he said, “what’s it mean?”

Shaygetz means traditionally a non-Jewish person or even a Jewish person who’s not behaving the way they should behave.”

I love that word. I was thinking, “The Journeys of a Shaygetz.” “The Diaries of a Shaygetz.” I don’t know. Something like that. I wasn’t even thinking. It was just a word that had just popped into my head.

And he said, “I love it. And how about we do it on the cover, we write this word, and we have a little dictionary, a graphic element, that will explain it.”

SHAYGETZ: NOUN. Non-Jewish hoodlum. Definition number two? A lapsed Jewish person. And then definition number three? Vermin.

It would be kind of provocative and interesting. But also it sounded like he thought that it was a sensationalist thing. He liked the foreignness of it. He liked the fact that there was something unfamiliar, yet intriguing.

And this was also a way to avoid the kind of straightforward “title, colon, subtitle.” Right? Like Unorthodox: My Scandalous Journey Away From Whatever. I was trying to avoid something like that. I wanted to just have a title. Something with “scandalous” in it just sounded so grotesque to me—to put on your book. My personal aesthetic is one that says, “Let’s keep things a little bit more subtle.”

But the fact is that I was never comfortable with that. I never liked the name because shaygetz has a connotation among Yiddish speak­ers, especially in the Hasidic world, of being something sensational, something very crude, something very crass. It didn’t feel like it really represented me. People in the Hasidic world might call me a shaygetz. But the truth is that they are probably unlikely to. They’re more likely to use other names for me. Like shaygetz is, to some degree, mild compared to what they would call me. They would call me a Posha Yisroel or an Oicher Yisroel. A Posha Yisroel—that’s what they would say. Somebody who is so evil, a really wicked, wicked person.

SS: What are the conditions of possibility that allow for your father and mother to retain their anti-authoritarian ideology, that allowed your father to declare: “ich bin a chusid fun aybershten” [“I am a Hasid of God”]. I think you intimate it in the book, but never flesh it out explicitly. What is the relationship, in other words, between the decentralization of authority in the Hasidic world—namely, with the proliferation of multiple rebbes who claim themselves as legitimate heirs to a respective dynasty, a shift from fighting between Hasidic groups to fighting between Hasidic dynasties—and your parents’ abil­ity to enter the Hasidic world with their anti-authoritarianism?

SD: It has always been possible to be a Hasid without being a Hasid of a rebbe. It has always been a little known secret that you could be a Ha­sid, but you didn’t have to be a Hasid of a rebbe. In Boro Park, in Monsey, in other places, even in Williamsburg (although in Williamsburg less so), there are many, many, many people who consider themselves Hasidish, but consider themselves Hasidish “independent” or “neutral.” That certainly exists from people who don’t quite feel connected to a particular rebbe. They might have a particular community that they feel mostly connected to—just sort of slightly touching it, but not neces­sarily bound to it. This is a fairly commonplace stance to be Hasidish in Boro Park, but to not feel completely connected to something.

My father also had some connection to Breslev. He had really studied a lot of Reb Nachman. And at times, had some formal attachments—he used to give shiurim [lectures] at the Breslev shul—in Boro Park when I was very little, when I was three or four.

We spent several summers in Israel. For a short period, my father put me into the Breslev seder [study session] in Jerusalem. In the end that didn’t work out. And he took me out of there and put me into the Neturei Karta seder. There was a problem with Breslev. There was a transportation issue with the bus. I’d been on the bus and they didn’t take me home. And the bus driver was driving around Jerusalem for hours because I didn’t speak Hebrew and they had no idea where to take me. And I was a five-year-old. Four and a half. And so in the end, my parents were like, “alright, let’s not do the Breslev thing. It’s too far and we have the transportation problem.” And they put me into the Neturei Karta seder.

My father had a lot of Neturei Karta sympathies, too. He was very, very anti-Zionist. He kind of romanticized the old Jerusalemite, Hanoyim, the fiercely zealously anti-Zionist.

My father had a flirtation with both of them. My father was friends with Moshe Hirsch. Moshe Hirsch was Yasser Arafat’s Minister of Jewish Affairs for many years. My father knew him well. He used to buy his esroygim from him.

SS: Also, despite his claims otherwise, wasn’t your father a bit of a shtikl rebbe [Yiddish: “a bit of a rebbe”] himself (to disciples like Shaul Magid, etc.)? Isn’t that the paradox of his legacy?

SD: He was a very complicated person. He commanded a kind of—I hesitate to use this word—but he commanded a kind of cult following. I’m so afraid of using the word “cult” because cult has such a negative connotation, but there was something that was very powerful about his persona that made people enthralled. I don’t think it’s anything that he consciously cultivated. But he was an eccentric. There was no question of that. His lifestyle was very eccentric.

What’s interesting is that in that Sun interview is that he mentions that Judaism is very suspicious, very weary, of the ascetic lifestyle. And yet he really led that ascetic lifestyle.

I don’t think he was so anti-authoritarian in principle. I just think that he hadn’t found some authority beyond texts that he felt he needed to attach to. It’s maybe a little bit unusual within the Hasidish world. But not entirely unusual. Primarily in the Hasidish world, they take upon their own kind of authority and gain a following. There’s just as much a tradition of that. Most rebbes who became rebbes, at least the ones who established courts. The first rebbes early on, established them­selves. Later came the history of the dynastic leadership model. In the very beginning, the Baal Shem Tov has no real yichus [pedigree] that we know of.

I think specifically people who join it tend to see counter-cultural aspects in the Hasidish world really magnified in ways that are not really true I think. I think this is true of my parents. I don’t really think they understood the Hasidish world when they joined it. And I don’t really think they really understood the Hasidish world throughout their living within it.

My mother never understood that sending me to seder wearing suspenders to hold up my pants in a world where everybody wears a belt is going to be such a strike against me in the social hierarchy of our cheder. But she had absolutely no concept of that. So I think my parents were very naïve. I think they thought Hasidim are something completely different than what Hasidim really are. And I think this is common among Baalei Teshuva [born-again Jews].

Sam Shuman is a PhD student in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Michigan investigating the collapse of the Hasidic diamond industry in Antwerp.

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How Can You Make King David into a Villain?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michal Lemberger wrote about Lot's wife and the other nameless women of the Bible. She is the author of the recently published book After Abel and Other Stories and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

As the publication date of my book grew closer, I began to imagine some of the questions that readers might ask me. Chief among them was: how can you make King David into a villain?

King David is a great hero in the Bible. I could even argue that he is the great biblical hero. He unifies Israel and Judah once and for all to create the nation. He is the progenitor of all the kings of Judah and the “eternal House of David.” God loves him. These are not the attributes of a villain.

It’s true that the book of 1 Samuel, which tells his story, doesn’t paint him as perfect. There’s that unpleasantness with Uriah, who has to be gotten rid of so that David can marry his wife, Batsheva. David doesn’t step in when his son, Amnon, rapes his daughter (and Amnon’s half-sister), Tamar. He doesn’t act like a conquering hero when his son, Absalom, tries to wrest the crown from his head. The only thing that saves David in that case is Absalom’s vanity and long, luscious hair.

But David remains a hero. He’s still the warrior who took down Goliath. He’s still the talented musician, the Psalmist. For religious Jews, David is tied up with the hope for a messianic future. Prayer services still talk about “restoring the fallen Booth of David,” meaning, a religious monarchy in the land of Israel under the leadership of the messiah, who will come from David’s lineage.

So how could I paint him as a villain?

Two clichés come to mind, both of which are pertinent here: “there are two sides to every story,” and “history is written by the victors.” The story of the nation of Israel as we have it is a record of the victorious House of David. It’s the story told from David’s point of view. But there’s another story there—of his struggles with Saul—and it tells another tale.

Every detail about David that I included in my story, “Saul’s Daughter,” comes straight from the biblical text. In addition to being a great warrior, musician, and follower of God, David also ran to Moab—Israel’s historic enemy—to hide from Saul. He sold the services of his growing army as mercenaries and fought for Achish, king of Gath, against his own people. Achish trusted David, because, as he says, “he has aroused the wrath of his own people Israel.”

What these details point to is the complicated way in which David finally reaches the throne. To put it simply, he was a populist leader who attracted the poor and disenfranchised to his cause, but the wealthier classes—the landowners and professional warriors, for example—didn’t fall in line. They stayed loyal to Saul. That was the reality I stepped into when I wrote Michel’s story.

She, after all, was Saul’s daughter. She was married to David, but he ran out into the night without a glance back at her. And then she married Palti, one of Saul’s supporters. The question for me wasn’t: how do I tell this story and make David the hero? It was: given the political realities of their lives, how would these people—his abandoned wife and her second husband—feel about David? To put it plainly, they would despise him.

What we tend to forget when we read the Bible is that it tells more than religious or legal stories. In 1-2 Samuel, we get glimpses of a political environment every bit as complex as our own.

In a civil war, one side inevitably loses. Michel’s reasons for hating David are easy to understand: He fights against and defeats her father, which she might view as treason, especially after he deserted her. Even worse, when she finally gets comfortable in a new life, he pulls her back, forces her to stand by his side while the man who loves her is left crying by the side of the road as she is led away. She is, by any definition, one of history’s losers.

Interesting things happen when we tell the losers’ stories. David is a national hero, but to some of his contemporaries, he would, indeed, be the villain.

Michal Lemberger’s nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Slate, Salon, Tablet, and other publications, and her poetry has been published in a number of print and online journals. She holds a BA in English and religion from Barnard College and a MA and PhD in English from UCLA, and she has taught the Bible as literature at UCLA and the American Jewish University. Michal lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughters. Learn more

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Interview: Barbara Krasner

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 | Permalink

by Barbara Bietz

Barbara Krasner is an author, educator, and creator of The Whole Megillah blog. I have the good fortune of serving with Barbara on the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. Barbara is passionate about history and research—her wealth of knowledge is inspiring. I was delighted to chat with Barbara about her mostrecent book, Goldie Takes a Stand (Kar-Ben) about Golda Meir.

Barbara Bietz: In your new book Goldie Takes a Stand you focus on a specific time in Golda Meir’s youth. How did you discover Goldie’s involvement in the school book fundraising effort and why did you choose to write about this event?

Barbara Krasner: In 2010, I was attending a two-week retreat (the Carolyn P. Yoder Alumni Retreat) at the Highlights Foundation in Boyds Mills, PA and there was a weekend break between the two one-week sessions. I had a press pass to attend the annual reading of the George Washing­ton and Moses Seixas letters of religious tolerance at the Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, so when Week One ended, I headed up to Rhode Island. I had brought with me a book I found on the farm­house shelves at the Highlights Foundation: My Life by Golda Meir. Nestled in my bed that night, I read—and discovered that Golda had lived in Milwaukee when she first arrived in America. Over the course of two pages, she described how she formed this society of her friends to raise money for kids who couldn’t afford their textbooks. I loved this anecdote, because she’d only been in the fourth grade and already she’d become a macher.

BB: During your research process, what was the most unexpected thing you discovered about Golda Meir?

BK: Aside from kids having to buy their own books, I think the most sur­prising thing was that this fundraiser was the first time she gave a public speech, and as much as she tried, she had to speak from her heart. She never wrote down a speech again.

BB: Did you face any challenges in the research process?

BK: I went down a few bunny trails in Milwaukee before finding an ar­chivist at Jewish Museum Milwaukee who was able to find a newspaper article (which Golda mentioned in her autobiography) documenting the fundraiser event. Distance also presented a challenge. For most other projects, my research has kept me within driving distance from home in New Jersey.

BB: How did it feel to see the illustrations by Kelsey Garrity-Riley?

BK: I think it’s always exciting for an author to see her words interpreted by an illustrator. I was re­ally curious to see what she would do with Golda, since even Golda knew she was not particularly attractive. I think the results speak for them­selves.

BB: Can you share one writing or research tip for aspiring non-fiction writers?

BK: Think broadly when conducting your re­search. Go sideways if you have to. For instance, if your subject left no journal or diary or didn’t pen an autobiography, find contemporaries who did. That at least will give you context.

To learn more about Barbara Krasner visit her website at

Barbara Bietz is a freelance writer and children’s book reviewer. She is currently a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee. Barbara is the author of the middle grade book, Like a Maccabee. She has a blog dedicated to Jewish books for children at

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