The ProsenPeople

Interview: Jessamyn Hope

Friday, February 12, 2016 | Permalink

with Elise Cooper

Safekeeping is a novel about personal tragedy, hope, and suffering within the backdrop of Jewish history. Between flashbacks to Jewish history from the German pogroms, the Holocaust, and the founding of Israel, the story takes place in 1994 on an Israeli kibbutz, where six people connect through a search for their identity, each one looking to escape their own personal crisis.

Elise Cooper: How did you come to write this book that includes so much Jewish history?

Jessamyn Hope: My mom converted to Judaism. She was born in Italy. I was raised Jewish and consider myself a Zionist, although I am not very religious. I am very much interested in Jewish history and the fate of the Jewish people.

EC: Your characters are a melting pot from around the world. What interested you in the multicultural characters?

JH: Growing up, my father loved to travel and would save all year to take the family to places in the United States or overseas, and that love of traveling was passed on to me. I have visitied over forty countries—by public bus in Rajasthan, in a third-class car on the Trans-Siberian railway, by bicycle from Istanbul to Gibraltar, and recently I was in Thailand and Laos. All of these experiences helped my writing of Safekeeping, which features an international cast of characters.

EC: Since the kibbutz is such an important backdrop for the story did you ever spend time in one?

JH: During my junior year in college I visited my uncle’s kibbutz. The following year I went back and stayed on Ramat Yohanan, my cousin’s kibbutz fifteen minutes outside of Haifa, on which the kibbutz in the book is based. I met someone there who, like one the character Ofir, had recently lost his eardrums and some of his eyesight in a bus bombing.

EC: There seems to be a particular dichotomy between kibbutz life and New York in the book. How do these contrasting settings serve the story?

JH: New York is the opposite of the kibbutz: you can live autonomously and pursue your own passions without pressure to belong to a community. As an artist I am a very big individualist, a free thinker. But part of me is drawn romantically to a larger cause bigger than myself.

It’s not just about New York is all about being an individual while the kibbutz is all about community; New York City is a place where people come to reinvent themselves, to leave behind their past and go after their individual dreams, but the Zionist story of starting a country and being willing to sacrifice fascinated me. This was reflected in two of my characters: Franz, a Holocaust survivor, an individualist who lives day to day, while Ziva, a Kibbutzim pioneer, has a higher ideal, with a strength and energy to start up a new country. And because the novel takes place in 1994, the Israeli survival mode of the time, completely foreign to the American experience, contrasts directly with the cultural exchange post-9/11: now Israelis want to experience the Western culture of self-expression while New Yorkers live with the insecurity of terrorism—much more than they did twenty years ago.

EC: Is that why you put the scene in the book when Ziva tries to give Franz a Hebrew name after he escapes to Israel from the Nazis?

JH: “All I’m saying is that the Nazis tried their damnedest to do away with Franz, and if it’s quite all right with you, I’d prefer to not lend them a helping hand.” For me, this quote is crucial to the book. In building Israel, Jews were asked on some level to reinvent themselves. Franz had no Hebrew identity and wanted to hold on to his old identity, while Ziva, by extension, Israel, is asking him to give it up. She represented those who founded Israel by turning away from their past, reinventing themselves.

EC: What do you think the theme of the book is?

JH: Self-perseverance despite tragedy. I wrote the Russian immigrant character and Ziva as Scarlett O’Hara types. I was inspired by Scarlett and fascinated by Gone With The Wind. I wanted to write that type of character. The entire cast is morally ambiguous, extremely ambitious, yet you can’t help but be inspired by their grit and determination. They use any tool to survive.

EC: Does the brooch also signify human perseverance?

JH: It represents in some ways Jewish history, with the fears and desires passed down through the generations. Among my intentions with these brooch stories was to show how events from the past—moments we don't know about—affect who we are today. The brooch was a way to show readers that they are influenced by what happened to their family through past generations. Every single character in the book has a personal challenge, often an inherited one. My character Adam represents those who go through a tragedy and cannot adjust. How much choice does he have with his alcohol addiction and suffering?

EC: Are any of the characters based on yourself?

JH: Claudette, the Canadian one. She is a young woman who lost her mother and suffered from OCD. I went through that as well, but fortunately I got better. Unfortunately, I found the healthy version of myself boring, so I wrote in the crisis with the orphanage where the province of Quebec falsely identified orphans as being mentally ill in collaboration with the Catholic Church.

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

JH: We are living in a time where individuals need to speak up. On some level there is a competition between looking out for yourself and taking a responsibility for the larger community. I called the book Safekeepingfor a reason. Israel is supposed to be a place where everyone can be kept safe. Sadly project forward to today where there is still a search for safekeeping, especially as the world turns its back on Israel. Safekeeping is less and less guaranteed.

Elise Cooper lives in Los Angeles and has written numerous national security articles supporting Israel. She writes book reviews and interviews for various outlets including the Military Press.

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An Author's First Book Is Always Their Second

Friday, February 12, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Oppenheimer shared his thoroughly secular affiliation with Joseph and the personal inner turmoil reflected in his book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Daniel has been blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

Exit Right was the second book I intended to write. The first was about science fiction and fantasy “fandom,” the subculture of fans who go to conventions, write fan fiction, play role-playing games, and just in general organize their identity around their love of science fiction or fantasy novels, television programs, movies, or comics.

I planned to write that book because, logically, it made sense. I was an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi. I had some pretty interesting hypotheses about why people were drawn to the stuff. I also considered myself one of the world’s leading experts on the intersection of Jewishness and science fiction. And it seemed marketable: sub-culture books were big at the time. I remember in particular Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, about Scrabble players, but there were others.

So I did what aspiring nonfiction book writers do. I did some reporting, spending a weekend at that year’s world science fiction convention. I read a bunch of other writing on the subject. I wrote a sample chapter. I did the whole book proposal. Then I showed it to my maybe-agent, who thought it was boring (to paraphrase) and suggested that she would consider representing it if I went back to the drawing board, did some more reporting, and reconceptualized the whole book somehow.

I really didn’t want to do that, because although the book made sense in the abstract, in practice it was tough. I found the interactions with the hardcore fans exhausting. There was a lot of suspicion of reporters, and there was also a lot of socially-enforced hierarchy, so that fans who really could have given me a great deal of insight into the mores of the community felt that they couldn’t speak openly because they would risk being criticized and ostracized not only for revealing too much to the outside world but for presuming to speak as experts when there were others who were more experienced.

On top of that, there were a lot of fans who were prohibitively socially awkward. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, one of the best qualities of the fandom communities, and one I’m sure I would have spent a great deal of time exploring if I’d ended up writing the book, was the way in which it had evolved to provide a social home for people who didn’t fit in very easily into the “normal” social world. I’m quite sure it saves and enriches a lot of lives that otherwise would be quite lonely.

All of which is great for the people within the fandom, and as an example of American subcultural creativity at its best. The problem for me, though, is that I’m someone who’s excessively sensitive to verbal and nonverbal cues from other people that they like me, that they accept me, that they get what I’m saying. It was quite exhausting to embed, even for a weekend, in a community with so many people who didn’t naturally send out those signals. Or who, if they were sending them out, were doing so on a different frequency than the one I was accustomed to receiving. I couldn’t imagine spending a year or two reporting in that world. It would have wrung me out.

So there were a lot of reasons not to write that book. At the most fundamental level, though, the problem was simply that I didn’t have much to say about science fiction and fantasy fandom. Enough for an essay, but not nearly enough for a book. It just wasn’t what I was meant to write. Fantasy and science fiction, I’ve realized in retrospect, work for me as escapist entertainment, but they don’t plug directly in to that part of my brain that lights up when I’m doing my best work as a writer.

Around the time that this notion was beginning to percolate up from my unconscious, I wrote a long cover story for the alt-weekly where I worked on the conservative writer and activist David Horowitz, who had once been the radical socialist writer and activist David Horowitz. It was an odd story to write for a local paper based in Western Massachusetts, since Horowitz lived in Los Angeles and had no connection to the area. But my editor liked me and gave me a lot of autonomy to pick my topics, and I found Horowitz fascinating.

After the story came out, someone pointed out to me that over the previous few years, without recognizing or intending any pattern, I’d also written pieces on two of Horowitz’s best known comrades in the ranks of left-to-righters, Norman Podhoretz and Christopher Hitchens. Something was drawing me to the topic. Maybe, it was suggested, I should write a book about it.

Once it was framed that way for me, it became obvious. It also offered me an honorable way out of my previously intended book. I cautiously raised the idea of ditching the sci-fi book, and instead writing a book about political turncoats, with the two people whose opinions I valued most on these things—my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) Jessica, and my brother Mark. Both, much to my relief, thought it was a great idea. And that was it.

Well, not exactly. That was ten years ago. In the interim I’ve found a new agent, sold the proposal, got married, had two kids (with another on the way), been frequently riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, procrastinated terribly. The book has been with three different editors at three different imprints at two different publishing houses. I’ve worried at times that I’d never finish it. But I’ve never worried—and I suspect this is why I’ve been able to push through—that it’s the wrong book for me to write.

It feels right. That doesn’t mean it’s good, but it’s authentic. Which is an enormous relief. I don’t know that I had to go down that false path to have found my way to this better one, but I don’t think it hurt.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.

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Book Cover of the Week: Love from the Very Hungry Caterpillar

Thursday, February 11, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

I don't know anyone who didn't grow up with Eric Carle, whether has a young reader or a parent or a grandparent. Universally familiar to the last half century of children and those who read with them, the distinct artwork and restrained text prompting readers to turn the to the next page impacted if not defined how generation after generation learned to see the world around them: the personalities of animals, the adventures of insects, the vibrancy of the natural world.

As much a novelty of nostalgia as a short picture book for all ages, one of Eric Carle's most beloved characters returns between heart-patterned flyleaf pages to deliver a continuous message of love:

"You are so sweet, the cherry on my cake, the bees knees," the captions read. "You make the sun shine brighter, that stars sparkle, the birds sing, my heart flutter." Who wouldn't want to share that with their lovebug, large or small?

Eric Carle gave one of my favorite interviews of all time in The Paris Review for Young Readers, Spring 2015. Everyone who has ever met or been a child should read it. And check out the Eric Carle Museum, too.

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My Own Master of My Own Dreams

Wednesday, February 10, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Daniel Oppenheimer shared the personal inner turmoil reflected in his book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Daniel is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

There’s a moment early in Leslie Fiedler’s essay “Master of Dreams: The Jew in the Gentile World” that reminds me why the essay impressed me so much when I first read it sometime around a decade ago. The great twentieth-century critic is trying to remember when he first really recognized Joseph—the dreamer and dream-interpreter bestowed with a coat of many colors—as the true ancestor of the modern Jewish artist and writer.

It wasn’t in the Bible itself, nor was it in any of the fiction by modern Jewish writers that played with the Joseph story. Instead, Fiedler writes:

It was a chance phrase in a most goyish poet which provided me with a clue to the meanings I am pursuing here, a verse in the Sixth Satire of Juvenal, where, describing the endless varieties of goods on sale in Rome… he remarks that ‘for a few pennies’ one can buy any dream his heart desired ‘from the Jews.’ From the Jews! It was those few words which fired my imagination with their offhand assumption that dream-peddlery is a Jewish business, that my own people have traditionally sold to the world that commodity so easy to scorn and so difficult to do without: the stuff of dreams.

If pressed, before I reread “Master of Dreams” I might have been able to dredge up that it was about Joseph. I may also have said that Freud figured into it some fashion, though whether I would be remembering that from the essay I can’t say, since “Freud is in there somewhere” is a safe prediction for nearly everything by Fiedler—as well as much of what was written by the crew of mid-century New York intellectuals with which he was loosely affiliated.

What I forgot was nearly everything else in the essay: Kafka, Mailer, Delmore Schwartz, Nathanael West, Pharaoh, Jacob, Potiphar and his wife, the ascendance and soon to descend twilight of Jewish-American fiction, the specific ways that Freud figured into it, and so much more. The essay is dizzying in its array of references, its intuitive leaps, its intoxicating sense of life, and its brilliant and seductive and suspiciously convenient assertions.

Worse than all my forgetting, I think, is what my recent rereading reveals about what I never knew in the first place: the story in Genesis, of Joseph and his many-colored coat, around which Fiedler weaves the whole thing.

So this wonderful essay, which has been so important to me, so central to my identity as a Jewish artist and intellectual, is one that I barely remember and never reread until now. And with its renewed inspiration I immediately went out and didn’t read the relatively short section of the Old Testament that was essential to fully understanding it. I probably reread The Lord of the Rings instead.

It would be ironic, except that the whole essay (I recognize now, upon rereading) grants an enormous license to modern Jewish arts to be Jewish artists without doing anything overtly Jewish. We are simply (or not so simply at all, of course) meant to follow the truth of our dreams, and in so doing to narrativize and interpret the half-remembered and barely understood dreams of the gentile world in which we live—and through that bring healing that world, ultimately prosper, and find ourselves celebrated for doing so. As Fiedler writes: “The Jewish Dreamer in Exile, thinking only of making his own dreams come true, ends by deciphering the alien dreams of that world as well; thus determining the future of all those who can only know what lies before them dimly and in their sleep.”

I think it’s fair to say, without diminishing the brilliance of the original essay, that in one respect it’s a very appealing justification myth for all Jewish artists and thinkers whose Jewishness consists primarily of the work we wish to pursue that isn’t necessarily explicitly Jewish in its themes. So the great Josephs of the early twentieth century, for Fiedler, were Kafka, “who never mentioned the word ‘Jew,’ in his published work,” and Freud, whose most enduring myths depend on Hamlet and Oedipus, “two mythological goyim out of the dreams of Gentiles.”

So by following my own muse, for instance, into the lives of some of the most interesting political turncoats of the past century, half of whom are Jewish, and through their lives interpreting the restless dreams of the American psyche, I’m not just doing essentially Jewish work, I’m doing really Jewish work. I’m the ancestor and reincarnation of Joseph. I’m the source of renewal of the creative Jewish spirit.

It doesn’t matter that I’m entirely secular in my religious practice and identity. It doesn’t matter that I married a gentile, or that my children may not identify as particularly Jewish. What matters is my dream-peddlery.

Which is, itself, a lovely dream.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.

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Interview: Laura Amy Schlitz

Tuesday, February 09, 2016 | Permalink

with Michal Hoschander Malen

Jewish Book Council and Laura Amy Schlitz sat down to talk about Laura’s young adult novel The Hired Girl, which recently won both the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, as part of a blog tour through the Association of Jewish Libraries

Michal Hoschander Malen: Joan is a character absolutely bursting with personality, charm, wit and exuberance. Did you model her on anyone in life or in literature?

Laura Amy Schlitz: No, I didn’t—in fact, I seldom base a major character on anyone I know. When I begin a novel, I know I’m going to spend a lot of time with the people in it, so I like to begin by not knowing them too well. That way, there are mysteries to solve. Curiosity helps me to keep writing.

MHM: Joan is remarkably free of prejudice, unusual in her time (and in any other). She is also very open to the world around her and able to learn from a variety of people and experiences, also a struggle for many young people. Joan develops these characteristics in spite of a singularly harsh youth. Do you think young readers can subtly learn something from this?

LAS: Now here I disagree with you: I think Joan shares many of the prejudices of her time. Joan is a girl of the early twentieth century, a time when religious prejudice and ethnic stereotypes were rife. Early in the book, for example, Joan takes pride in telling Malka that her forebears were Scottish and German, not Irish; she shares the widely held belief that the Irish were inferior. When she first meets Kitty, Anna’s Irish cook, she observes that her kitchen is spotless, and discards her belief that the Irish are dirty.

And while similar prejudices and stereotypes of the time make Joan’s love for David is truly forbidden and her friendship with the Rosenbachs is triumphant, Joan is largely insulated from antisemitism in the country. She lives in a very small world, and most of what she knows about the Jews--or thinks she knows--comes from Ivanhoe and the Bible. When she first meets the Rosenbachs, she’s dependent on them for a safe place to sleep. By the time she discovers that they’re Jewish, she has already been won over by Solly’s kindness and Mrs. Rosenbach’s elegance. The Rosenbachs are the kind of people Joan aspires to be: cultivated, literary, and—this is important to Joan—fashionably dressed.

If Joan is admirable, it’s because she thinks for herself. She has prejudices, but they aren’t deep-rooted, and she’s not psychologically driven to despise others. I try not to think didactically when I write a story, but I would be delighted if young readers sought to emulate Joan by seeing the world for themselves.

MHM: The diary format enables the reader to see much of what makes Joan tick. It also helps us appreciate her incredible sense of humor. Did you plan from the outset to use this format or did you consider telling the story in another way?

LAS: I intended to write the book as a diary from the very beginning. I was coming off another book, Splendors and Glooms, which had five protagonists and multiple points of view. I promised myself that if I ever escaped from Splendors and Glooms, I would write a book from a single point of view.

My decision coincided with a special gift from a student at the Park School, where I work. A child named Lance (he is a young man now) gave me a blank book as a Christmas present. It had a leather cover, thick creamy pages, and a ribbon marker. It was almost too beautiful to spoil with writing, but I thought, I’m going to write in it anyway; I’m going to write straight through. Writing in that book helped me remember that the story was a diary. I wrote easily and spontaneously. I think Joan’s humor is a reflection of my joy when the words came so quickly.

MHM: The history of the era comes vividly to life in the pages of the book, from Joan’s farm life to the vibrant Baltimore Jewish community of the time. What kinds of research did you do to make the period details feel so right?

LAS: I began the book knowing the period fairly well, because I set a previous novel, A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, in 1909. I had general books on the period: books about houses and clothing and Victorian America. But I needed a lot of specific research—especially about domestic technology, because Joan does so much housework. Mrs. Esther Levy’s Jewish Cookery Book was a great help to me in planning meals and figuring out how to keep the meat and milk dishes separate.

Daniel E. Sutherland’s Americans and Their Servants was helpful, because Americans differed from Englishmen in their view of domestic service—the very term “hired girl” is an American euphemism meant to distinguish the paid laborer from the slave. Another book that helped me with Joan’s place in the workforce was Nan Enstad’s Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

For local history, I was greatly indebted to Isaac M. Fein’s The Making of an American Jewish Community: The History of Baltimore Jewry from 1773 to 1920. I also used Gerald Sorin’s The Jewish People in America and Philip Kahn’s Uncommon Threads: Threads That Wove the Fabric of Baltimore Jewish Life. I was lucky enough to find a history book from 1910, The Jews of Baltimore, by Isador Blum.

I bought a sheaf of women’s magazines from 1900 at a yard sale—they were helpful for period details. I consulted my grandmother’s girlhood diary from 1912. One valuable resource was a facsimile 1908 catalog from Sears Roebuck, which told me what things cost—money is of course important to Joan, because before she joined the Rosenbach household, she never had any.

MHM: Can you tell us a bit more about the Jewish community you describe? Are any of the characters in the book from that community based on people who really lived there?

LAS: I first became aware of the Jewish community around Reservoir Hill when three of my friends—Hillary Jacobs, Julie Schwait, and Michelle Feller-Kopman—were researching a Centennial history of the Park School, where I’ve worked for 25 years. I knew that it had been founded as a progressive school for Jewish andChristian children, but I hadn’t known much about the founders. Many of them were German Jews, and some of them lived in Eutaw Place. As my three friends explored the archives, they showed me documents, letters, photographs, and ephemera. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and I took to driving around Eutaw Place in search of a house for Joan to clean.

This is as good a time as any to remind my readers that The Hired Girl is a work of fiction. I tried to make it as accurate as possible, but I took full advantage of the magical powers with which all storytellers are endowed. For example, I placed a park bench where I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one. I conjured up heat waves and thunderstorms without consulting the National Weather Service. And I created the Columbia Parnassus Touring Company with one stroke of my magic wand—though the Academy of Music was real. The Rosenbachs were not real people. But like the founders of the Park School, they were cultivated, intellectual, and forward thinking.

MHM: What do you think will happen to Joan as she continues her journey into the big, wide world and expands her education? Will her natural warmth lead her to toward establishing her own family?

LAS: At the end of every novel, I lead my characters up a hill where they can see down in every direction. From there, they can choose where to go next. If I’ve left them in a promising place, I feel I’ve done my job, and I bid them Godspeed.

Joan has some interesting possibilities to explore. After graduation, she could become a teacher or a librarian, two fields that were open to women at that time; she might go on to college; she may well become a writer—she certainly spends a lot of time scribbling. I don’t know whether she’ll marry or not. She’s ardent and romantic, but she also grew up seeing what a miserable business marriage can be. My guess is that if she marries, she’ll find her profession first.

I worry a little bit about my dear Rosenbachs, because World War I is on the way. The German heritage of which Mrs. Rosenbach is so proud is about to become a liability. I don’t want David or Solly to have to fight in the trenches, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to escape it. (I ought to have had more foresight and given them flat feet.) If David survives the war, he’ll probably become a pretty good society painter, though he might not be quite as talented as Joan thinks he is.

Mimi will definitely run the department store.

Michal Hoschander Malen is a retired librarian and editor of reference books. She is Jewish Book Council's editor on books for young readers.

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The Submerged "I"

Monday, February 08, 2016 | Permalink

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. He will be blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.

The book I’ve just published, Exit Right, is about prominent Americans who’ve gone from the left to the right of the political spectrum. There are a few moments in the book, mostly in the introduction and postscript, when I poke my head up as an “I,” but it’s very much not about me.

That said, if I’m being honest, it’s entirely about me. It’s the product of my own struggles with the beliefs I inherited, and with the political community I grew up in. My maternal grandparents were members of the Communist Party, Philadelphia branch. My parents are leftists. Their friends, when I was growing up, were leftists too, some of them probably even communists in some sense—though by the time I came along it never would have come up.

It wasn’t a dramatically left-wing childhood. We didn’t live in an enclave of communists in Queens, as David Horowitz and his family did. We lived in Springfield, Massachusetts, a city so generic that its name is used to denote generic city-ness, and growing up there was about as exciting as that sounds.

Since I left my parents’ home for college I haven’t lived a highly dramatic left-wing adulthood. But what my life has been, from almost the beginning, has been a conversation about left-wing politics, very often an argument—with my parents, siblings, friends, classmates, co-workers, my wife, and, someday, soon my kids. I gave my grandfather a hard time about Stalin. I got into it in college with my fellow pro-labor activists about the merits of McDonald’s cheeseburgers (long story). I suspect I may have once blown it with a girl I was dating because I felt the need to complicate her views on affirmative action. I’m not usually that guy, but I’m that guy often enough to know that something’s going on.

Exit Right is about its subjects—Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz, and Christopher Hitchens—and I did my best to empathize with them and understand how they experienced the world. But it’s also personal. I used their stories to tussle with my father, possibly with my grandfather. Definitely with Christopher Hitchens, who was the second great intellectual crush of my life, and whose break from the left at first enthralled me, then infuriated me, then saddened me.

I’m also struggling within myself. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been caught between a desire to be part of a cause—to live up to the ideals and myths of my childhood—and a discomfort with what that might entail, with the letting go of detachment and skepticism, not to mention a fear that maybe if I really let go I’d end up on the other side altogether. I have to wonder if I’ve engaged in so many conversations and arguments over the years in the hopes that one of these days I’ll find my way through to beliefs that feel so rooted and tested that I can at last commit to one political persuasion—though whether that might fall to the right or the left I don’t know. And also, of course, because by this point it’s what I know how to do.

I’m surely drawn to writing about these men who’ve gone all the way from the left to the right, who’ve refused to rise above, because theirs is the path I haven’t taken. I’ve been the detached intellectual, the one who takes his doubts about the left so far but no further. And while I’m not leaving that path, I’m not comfortable on it either. There is no point so high that we can remain political but escape the most unnerving risk of political life, which isn’t losing the fight but choosing the wrong side of it in the first place.

Daniel Oppenheimer is a writer and filmmaker whose articles and videos have been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet Magazine, and Salon.com.

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New Book Reviews February 5, 2016

Friday, February 05, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:


Featured Content:

Book Cover of the Week: Poems That Make Grown Women Cry

Friday, February 05, 2016 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

It's already February, and with a certain day dedicated to romance on the greeting card calendar falling over a weekend this year, the pressure is on, for many, to curate a truly stellar activity or expression of love for those dear to them. Fortunately, there's still time to prepare.

It's hard to go wrong with poetry—I take that back: it's hard to go wrong with good poetry. And if you're not sure how to identify it yourself (or brave enough to try composing your own), might I suggest:

If you think poetry is cliché, you haven't encountered the verses selected by the writers, actors, translators, and song writers included in Anthony Holden and Ben Holden's dual anthologies. Poems That Make Grown Men Cry came out last spring; the companion, Poems That Make Grown Women Cry, follows this April from Simon & Schuster. Discover the poems that reliably reduce 100 women—including Ellena Ferrante, Francine Prose, Nikki Giovanni, Judi Dench, Yoko Ono, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Janet Suzman, Ruth Ozeki, and Ursula K. Le Guin—to tears: everything from the Romantic poets to Rumi to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Gwendolyn Brooks to Jang Jin-Sun.

There's much to admire in the simplicity of both book covers, but I'm especially enamored by the typography gracing the forthcoming sequel. There's something reminiscent of a worn paperback novel inherited from one's mother in the filigreed Art Deco typeface, nearly-gold lettering simultaneously bold and wispy against a solid white background.

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When a Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

Thursday, February 04, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Helen Maryles Shankman questioned whether her fictional stories trivialize the Holocaust. She is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Early in 2012, some guy named Ben emailed me an invitation to join the beta version of his new site, Pinterest. He called it “a social catalogue.” In his email, he effused that he “couldn’t wait for me to join the community.”

What did that even mean? I sat on the invitation for a week. After poking around on various author sites, I discovered that Pinterest was a sort of online bulletin board, where you could “pin” pictures that you found while scouting the internet. I responded “yes” to Ben’s invitation, because I can always use one more way to waste time on the internet.

For another week, I did nothing. Sure, the “board” was nicely designed, and it was fun seeing my name in big letters up on the top. But the blank board sat there for weeks, staring at me in an accusatory way, before I pinned my first photo.

A character in my novel was wearing an evening gown. It was 1939, she was absolutely fabulous, and she happened to be a vampire. Of course, I’d been using Google for research, and though it was doubtlessly a miraculous tool, in order to refer to my inspiration photos I had to bookmark webpages or drag photos into document files—a time-consuming process taking up time storage on my desktop.

What the heck, I thought, let’s try this, and opened up Pinterest. In the search box, I typed the words Womens Fashion, 1930s. I typed Fashion Designers. I typed Ballgowns. I added Black.

And, oh, reader! The riches that unfurled before my eyes!

Dresses by Balenciaga, by Chanel, by Lanvin, by Schiaparelli, by Vionnet! Luscious confectionary creations in silk and velvet and jet beads, in lace and organza and satin and netting! To save it, all I had to do was click the red “Pin It” button on each photo, and presto, it appeared on my own personal online bulletin board. Overnight, Pinterest became my go-to program, as essential as Microsoft Word.

This was a pivotal moment in my writing. The ability to call up a trove of curated research photos, available on my phone, computer, or laptop, bestowed on me the power to bring realistic detail to my writing whether I was sitting at my desk in New Jersey, staying at a rustic campsite in Maryland, or visiting my parents in Chicago.

In the title story of In the Land of Armadillos, inspired by events in the life of Bruno Schulz, Sturmbannfuhrer Max Haas, formerly of the Einsatzgruppen, takes it upon himself to protect the Jewish creator of his son’s favorite picture book. But Toby, the artist, doesn’t want to be protected: Toby wishes he was dead. To his own infinite astonishment, Max finds himself trying to restore the artist’s will to live.

I knew exactly what Max would look like: average, ordinary, everyman. But when I began to describe his SS uniform, I was stumped. Shiny black boots, I thought. A red swastika armband. After that, I was lost.

I opened up Pinterest and typed Nazi uniforms.

Still photos from Schindler’s List came up; the terror-inspiring, Hugo Boss-designed tunics of the Third Reich.But so did something else, infinitely stranger: jaunty, sporty fashion illustrations from a 1937 Nazi Party handbook. Here were the infamous SS officer uniforms I sought, with belts and braid and silver lightning pips and skull badges on the caps; but also gym uniforms, security guard uniforms, the League for German Girls uniforms, uniforms for sailors and hikers and children and waiters, all briskly sketched on attractive German citizens, striding smartly through imaginary fields, or standing about looking valiant and visionary. These weren’t the brutal, baby-killing Nazis of our collective postwar memory. These drawings were the way the Nazis saw themselves: healthy, wholesome, resolute, capable.

Upon seeing these drawings, something clicked inside my head. Max is a monster, a cold-hearted mass murderer, but the key to his character is that he doesn’t know it. He sees himself as a soldier and a family man--one who is assigned some unpleasant duties in the course of defending the world against the Communist threat.

The fashion illustrations breathed the same delusional air. And with that, the story caught fire.

Helen Maryles Shankman’s stories have been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

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Booklessness

Wednesday, February 03, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stolen Words author Rabbi Mark Glickman wrote about the Jewish community’s midcentury dispute over restituted libraries. He is guest blogging all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Try this. Take some ink, and apply it to paper. A vertical line here; a horizontal line there; some slants, curves, loops, and dots—all very small. Be meticulous. If you do it right, your ink will become letters, your letters will become words, your words sentences, and your sentences pages. Stack up some of those pages, bind them together on one side, and you’ll have a book—a portable compilation of ink and paper for you to read whenever you’d like.

But books, as we readers and writers know, are much more than ink and paper. Books convey meaning, and their meanings can transform the world, or at least take us away from the here and now and bring us to times and places vastly different than our own. Moreover, books as physical objects often take on stories of their own, and thus create new types of connections, as well. That’s why so many of us hold onto our books. That’s why so many of us treasure them. That’s why so many of us collect them with a love and passion that we rarely bestow on other physical objects.

I just wrote a book of my own—a book about books. Lots of books. The books I wrote about were the tens-of-millions of Jewish books looted by the Nazis during their twelve-year reign in Europe, and if this collection could rightly be called a library, these books composed the largest Jewish library in the history of the Jewish people.

Just as my book was about to be released, my wife and I sold our house, and, for a time, I had to put my own library into storage.

It was sad. My library had been a magnificent little room, featuring floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a comfortable reading chair, and a globe because I’m snooty. It was a rabbi-cave par-excellence, and I loved it. But over the course of two days, shelf-by-shelf, I emptied the library, until all that was left were empty shelves and a thin veneer of dust—the faint remnant of the literary treasures it once contained.

For Jews, books are treasures. Researching the story of the looted books of the Holocaust, I was repeatedly moved by the ways in which Jews cherish their books—the thrill that an old man experienced upon receiving a small children’s activity book he had to leave behind when he left his home in Germany as a child; the tears shed by German Jews as they watched their books go up in flames during the brief spate of book burnings in May, 1933; the courageous determination that a group of scholars and authors in the Vilna Ghetto showed as they tried to save looted Jewish books from the grubbing hands of their Nazi overlords.

The story of my library wasn’t tragic like those of World War II era Europe, but the booklessness I felt when it was empty gave me a tiny hint of what the Jews back then must have felt when they looked at the empty shelves in their own homes and community libraries.

Booklessness. For those of us who love the printed word, it is in some ways the spiritual equivalent of homelessness. It leaves us without roots, without anywhere to turn for comfort, without the shelter and strength that books and sometimes books alone can provide.

Unlike most Jews of Europe, I’ll survive this time of booklessness. I’ll also get my books back someday, and I live in a time when I can easily get my hands on pretty much whatever book I need.

Still, the sense of booklessness reminds me of how truly sacred—how truly precious—those piles of inked pages can actually be.

Rabbi Mark Glickman has served at congregations in Ohio, Washington State, and Colorado. He is the author of Stolen Treasure: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books and Sacred Treasure—The Cairo Genizah: The Amazing Discoveries of Forgotten Jewish History in an Egyptian Synagogue Attic.

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