The ProsenPeople

Yahrzeit

Thursday, August 21, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro wrote about writing a book on self-help. The book, Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Religion kept coming up in my research into self-help. Some religious texts were used as self-help (there is even a self-help edition of the Bible). Books like The Power of Positive Thinking (1954) combined self-help and religion to popular effect; so did forgotten titles like Pray Your Weight Away (1929). A conference I went to led by the author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books had the feeling of a tent revival. I often saw self-help referred to as “America’s religion, ” and at times I wondered if self-help, for some, had taken the place of religion.

My own ties to religion were weak. My grandparents had been religious Jews, but my father was an atheist. He even asked the Rabbi (also his brother-in-law to be) who performed his and my mother’s wedding ceremony not to mention the word G-d. As a result, my contact with Judaism was largely cultural: holidays spent with my grandmother, foods l loved like matzo brie and brisket.

If someone had asked me if I was Jewish, I would have said “yes,” but we had lost contact with most of our traditions, rituals, and history. My father wrote self-help books and was a child psychologist, and I think he believed we could figure out everything we needed for ourselves. He was wrong.

After my mother took her own life, my father was so angry and upset that he stopped talking about her. I was only two years old, and wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral. I was never taken to visit her grave, or taught how to grieve for her. By the time I was twenty-six, I felt completely lost. That summer, the week of the anniversary of my mother’s death, I broke down completely.

My paternal grandmother was the opposite of pushy, the kind of person who just wanted everyone to be happy, but for once, she intervened. Her confession: Every year, on the anniversary of my mother’s death, she told me, she burned a yahrzeit candle. My grandmother never told my father or me that she observed this ritual because she didn’t want to upset anyone. Yet, counter-intuitively, once I was given a way to grieve, I stopped feeling upset. From that year on, I have always lit a yahrzeit candle for my mother on July 27th. The ritual comforts me, and gives me a way to remember her. I light one for my grandmother too now, both to remember her and to remember the time she returned to me a tradition I didn’t even know I’d lost.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, and The Believer. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, NY. Read more about her here.

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Parent-Child Book Club: Shanghai Jews

Thursday, August 21, 2014 | Permalink

What trends in adult literature often sees its reflection in children’s publications—and now, more than ever, the other way around. In reviewing the 2014-2015 JBC Network titles, consider the parallel subjects between the different sections of the Authors on Tour book. Here’s one that jumped out at us right away:

 

Shanghai Escape is Kathy Kacer’s latest Holocaust remembrance book for young readers. It shares the experience of the over twenty thousand Jews who fled Europe for Shanghai through the true story of Lily Toufar and her family, Viennese Jews who escaped immediately after Kristallnacht. In a narrative peppered with primary documents and photographs, young readers learn of the interwar community in Shanghai and the resettlement of the Jewish refugees to a Hongkew ghetto under Japanese edict after Shanghai fell to the Land of the Rising Sun.

This same piece of Shanghai’s history is explored in Nicole Mones’s historical fiction, Night in Shanghai. Told through the perspective of a young black jazz musician who headlines the city’s interwar nightlife scene, the novel touches on the international balances before the “Chinese Jazz Age,” the struggle between nationalists and the budding Communist movement, the long-standing enmity between China and Japan, and the plight of the Jewish refugees streaming in as heavily and swiftly as Ho Feng-Shan could sign escape visas.

Shelly Sanders is also participating in the 2014-2015 JBC Network with the third and final installment of her Rachel trilogy, Rachel’s Hope. Based on the true survival story of her grandmother, Sander’s three-part series follows the protagonist as she and her family flee progroms in Russia in hopes of reaching America. The second installment of the trilogy, Rachel’s Promise, takes place in Shanghai, where Rachel works as a laundress and aspiring writer while she and her family are waylaid in the Far East. The Rachel trilogy is considered appropriate for readers ages 10 and up and would make a for great parent-teen book club program.

We’ve been hearing a lot about parent-child book clubs in the past few months, in which children and their parents read and discuss a book that suits the younger readers’ ages and reading level. It’s a program that teachers, librarians, and parents have put together as a means of encouraging reading and social interaction, and of fostering communication between parents and their kids.

It’s a great model, but it can also be pushed a step further: Add a companion read for the adults in the group, with the establishment of a supplemental parent’s book club to follow up on the discussion and experiences shared with the younger readers. How did the children’s book inform the parents’ reading of the accompanying selection of adult literature? Did the kids’ observations in the intergenerational club affect the adults’ perception of the second book? What was each family’s process for reading the shared book, and how did the experience differ from the adult solo?

There are a number of online resources for starting a parent-child book club—and you can always avail yourself of the JBC Book Club Concierge for additional support. Our favorite suggestions are keeping a book journal to share or at least reference during club meetings and holding a hands-on activity to add an experiential component to processing the book (and to keep the participants engaged!).

Volumes have been written on the American Jewish relationship with Chinese cuisine—let this be an opportunity for kids to explore their tastes! Incorporate a food workshop—learn to make dumplings, rice cakes, or hand-pulled noodles, for example—or hold the event at a local Chinese restaurant, making sure to have the staff help plan and explain the menu. If you can, try to find an establishment that serves cuisine authentic to Shanghai or its surrounding provinces.

And what better activity is there than a session with the author herself? If your community is planning to host Kathy, Nicole, or Shelly, plan to attend their event as a club. Younger readers will have the opportunity to address the author with ideas and questions honed and developed—and recorded in a book journal, if the reader does maintain one—in discussion with their peers and parents. If the author cannot make it to your community in person, arrange to Skype her in through the JBC LiveChat program!

Book Cover of the Week: In the Spirit of Homebirth

Wednesday, August 20, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Whether homebirthing is your steez or not, there's no denying the delight of this book cover:

In the Spirit of Homebirth: Modern Women, an Ancient Choice is a collection of stories across a panoply of cultures, socioeconomic classes, religions, and environments from women and their families who opted for this contemporary expression of an ancient tradition in childbearing.

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It’s All About the Journey

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | Permalink
This week, Zoe Fishman— the author of Saving Ruth, Balancing Acts, and her latest, Driving Lessons— blogs for The Postscript on her own driving lessons and the quest for something familiar. 

The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Zoe at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

It’s true that the basic premise of Driving Lessons — city slicker trades in the hustle and bustle for smaller town living — was based on my own decision to move south to Atlanta with my husband after thirteen years in New York. True also that my protagonist Sarah’s inability to drive was autobiographical — I hadn’t been behind the wheel in seventeen years (!) when I arrived. 

 I’ll never forget my first foray onto the highway, with my husband in the passenger seat. 

“I can’t drive!” I pleaded. “It’s been too long and I wasn’t even that good to begin with!” “

No, no, you can do this, you just need practice,” he calmly responded, convinced that I was exaggerating. “Let’s go.” 

Needless to say, arriving safely, not to mention still married, at our destination via a virtual sea of driving lanes was no small miracle. 

Unlike Sarah however, who is ambivalent about motherhood despite what she feels is a ticking time bomb of doom suspended above her thirty-six year old head, I was pregnant and happy to make the transition. Rather than fight my way onto the subway with a stroller or join a preschool waiting list before the start of my second trimester, I would gestate and write; perhaps finally learn how to roast a chicken. 

 So that’s what I did for the remaining months of my pregnancy. I wrote, learned how to cook and cobbled together my baby registry with the precision of a neurosurgeon. Atlanta seemed okay, but I didn’t really know why. I was too busy nesting, napping and not driving to say for sure. Oh, those naps. How I miss them! 

 And then, my son Ari arrived, and everything changed. 

The reality of my decision—to leave all that I knew and start over some place else as the new Mommy version of my former self—proved very different from what I had imagined. In the exhaustion of new parenthood, I missed New York’s nonstop energy. I missed my friends. I missed my schedule. I missed my favorite restaurants and boutiques and coffee shops and bars and well, me. Part of that was of course, post-partum nerves and a sleeplessness the likes of which I had never known, but the other part was a real sense of yearning for something—anything—that felt familiar in such uncharted territory. And to find the familiar in Atlanta you have to drive. So, finally, with my tiny infant in tow, that’s what I did.

Really, that’s what I wanted to explore in this book - the yearning for the familiar in times of transition. Whether it’s motherhood, or a new job or relationship, I think all women can relate to idealizing the past when we’re scared about the future. It’s the process of conquering that fear which helps us redefine our present.

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Interview: Susan Jane Gilman

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | Permalink

by Elise Cooper

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street by Susan Jane Gilman is a very enjoyable and insightful book. Spanning over seventy years, from the early 1900s to the late 1980s this novel encompasses many side stories. Yet the author does this by intertwining the rise of a woman ice cream mogul with an immigrant’s story, the twentieth century American Jewish desire to assimilate, women’s rights issues, poverty, world wars, McCarthyism, the youth movement of the sixties, Reagan’s trickle-down economics, and the overreach of government.

Elise Cooper interviewed Susan Jane Gilman for the Jewish Book Council.

Elise Cooper: Why did you decide to write a novel?

Susan Jane Gilman: I worked on this for three years. Each book seems to get exponentially harder and longer. I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I have written a memoir, short stories, and now this novel. In fact for my next book I have about twelve different ideas in my head.

EC: How did you get the idea for this book?

SJG: I love ice cream! I saw these Carvel Ice Cream ads that said ‘please eat my ice cream.’ On a whim I Googled Tom Carvel and learned that he was a Greek immigrant who went from rags to riches. Then I found out about the Mattuses, the founder of the Hagen Dazs chain who were also immigrants. Since these founders were generally nice people who loved to give to charity and loved children I knew I had to put some drama in the story. I created Lillian, a modern female anti-hero who is a combination of Scarlett O’ Hara and Leona Helmsley. The theme of this book is the moral complexity of people.

EC: Did you intend to discuss women’s issues in the book?

SJG: Yes. I wanted to expand on the way women are portrayed in our culture. That is why I put the scene in where a male businessman tells Lillian, ‘I don’t do business with women.’ I don’t see a lot of women anti-heroes in literature. If you noticed, this is a story of “Beauty and The Beast” in reverse, since she has a gorgeous husband. She became the brains and he the brawns. I also included the age-old issue for women: our American culture punishes women for not staying young.

EC: Can you describe the Lillian character?

SJG: She is a businesswoman who sells ice cream to the public in the guise of a motherly figure. But she also is mean-spirited, difficult, and manipulative. She has a lot of chutzpah. I would not want to work for her or be around her. Yet, I did love her and her personality. She is very animated, curious, and whip smart. She is fiercely protective of what she created and the people she loves. I wanted to create a character that is in certain ways very unlikable and in other ways is very loveable. I think that most humans have two sides. I hope readers find her complicated, exasperating, interesting, and funny. She had everything go against her early on, she is orphaned, disabled, Jewish, poor, an immigrant, a female, yet she is able to overcome all these obstacles to become very successful.

EC: Why did you make the character Jewish?

SJG: In all my books I have my voice and perspective. Being Jewish is who I am. The same is true for Lillian. She is who she is because of her environment. Jews came to the US because they were hunted and slaughtered. They have this edge and an added incentive to not look back. Brutality seems to be a particular Jewish experience that we had to face as a culture for years. It is in our blood stream that you live by your brain. Lillian remained very much a Jew, which is intrinsic to whom she is as a person.

EC: Why ice cream?

SJG: I think ice cream relates to the American Jewish experience. We love sweetness and goodness. Think of honey and apples on Rosh Hashanah. Food is a huge part of our culture.

EC: How did you do your research about ice cream?

SJG: I called the Carvel Corporation who put me in touch with one of the oldest stores over in Long Island. The owner, Mr. Gizagidze, told me all the ins and outs of the ice cream business. I met all the people who worked there and even worked behind the counter, although they did keep me away from the ice cream. I think they knew I had an ulterior motive: I could have opened my mouth under the skippet and poured ice cream down it. I also went to Gelato University in Bellona. I took a Gelato ice cream making class there. I learned from making it that the sweetness of ice cream is the product of science, mathematics, and chemistry.

EC: So which is better Gelato or ice cream? What is your favorite flavor?

SJG: This is like asking me to choose my favorite child. Right now I am on a Gelato kick since I live in Europe. The reason for this is my 6’3’ blue eyed husband who has been transferred here. However, I am going to be in America for my book tour and I will have to compare the different types. My favorite is Mint Chip and Chocolate ice cream.

EC: What would you like the readers to get out of the book?

SJG: I think the book is bitter sweet, a little dark and a provocative, interesting read. It is about people’s complexity. It is my valentine to NYC and my people. Hopefully they will see how I embraced my Jewish background and culture.

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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What's Your Book About?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014 | Permalink

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has written for the New York Times Magazine, Time, and The Believer. Her book, Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture, is now available. She will be blogging here for the Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series all week.

This is the question I used to dread, and, if I’m to be honest about it, still dread. It’s quite possibly the only thing I’ve gotten worse at after practicing more.

I didn’t like to answer this question because my subject was self-help, and New York Literary Publishing People would rather get hit by a bus wearing dirty underwear than with a self-help book in hand. I wanted to write a smart book about self-help history and culture, but sometimes just the words self-help seemed to cause a hysterical blindness in editors. Several rejections from publishers explained, “I don’t publish self-help books.”

“It’s not a self-help book!” I always felt the need to exclaim to my agent, who obviously already knew this.

But the funny thing is you never know what your book is about until you’re finished. When I started my research, I read self-help books on grieving. The exercise had been academic, but it suddenly became personal: I had grief. I had unresolved grief. My mother had committed suicide just before my second birthday, and my father and I almost never spoke about it.

The irony was almost unbearable – my father wrote self-help books, and my mother couldn’t help herself.

Once I incorporated my mother’s death into my book, the story became much more personal, and the “about” of the book changed. Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how I didn’t see this coming. It’s partly the powerful nature of denial, but it’s also the pleasure of discovery. Writing about my mother’s death helped me work through it, and so my book did become a kind of self-help book – for me.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City and Columbia County, NY. Read more about her here.

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How I Came to Write Jewish Artists and the Bible in 20th-Century America

Friday, August 15, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Samantha Baskind wrote about the artist Jack Levine and about some of the artists she interviewed for Encyclopedia of Jewish American Artists. Her newest book, Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America, is now available. She has been blogging here for the Visiting Scribe series all week.

Some of the most important twentieth-century American artists also happen to be Jewish. To this point they have been celebrated for their contributions to major art movements, like Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Photorealism. As I was doing research on a number of these artists, mining their mainstream work for any Jewish content (implicit or explicit), I found that many addressed biblical themes. I made these discoveries by examining old exhibition catalogs, spotting an occasional reference in critics’ reviews of shows, a brief notation here or there in a book, or digging through an artist’s archived papers. I wondered: Why hasn't anyone explored this distinctive theme in art by Jewish Americans? Why hasn’t anyone questioned why the subject has so far been ignored? Here’s a fascinating statistic that I knew deserved further inquiry: Religious imagery by twentieth-century Jewish American artists is so pervasive that of the initial American works purchased by the Vatican in 1973 for the new Gallery of Modern Religious Art, nearly half were by Jewish artists even though at that time Jews comprised just less than three percent of America's population.

And so my research took me into museum archives, recesses of libraries leafing through dusty, decades old magazines, the homes of art collectors, and even to a few of the living artists’ homes. When sifting through old art, long since packed away – even from their teen years – the artists’ themselves discovered that biblical subjects occasionally interested them at a young age!

Some artists consistently depicted biblical subjects alongside their more common matter. Others only touched on the Bible. Sometimes the biblical reference was small and sometimes shockingly blatant, and this is in media across the board: paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and book illustrations. Here's one of the first instances I uncovered that made me think that a full-length study was in order: From 1935-40, Maurice Sterne – now a mostly forgotten artist who in his day was famous enough to command the first one-person exhibition by an American at the Museum of Modern Art (1933) – painted an immense twenty-panel mural, Man’s Struggle for Justice. Done under the auspices of the Federal Art Project, for the law library at the Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C., at times Sterne used allegory to make his points. The series comprises oil on board panels demarcating concepts of justice over the ages (e.g., Brute Force and Mercy), as well as the impact of modern life on justice (e.g., Red Tape and Scientific Evidence). Surprisingly, Sterne employed the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel for the panel Ambition, which merges the biblical past with present-day concerns. Sterne pictures the angel as seraphic, while Jacob appears mortal as do six additional muscular figures, three climbing a rock lining each side of the composition, “representing earthly ambition.” This interpretation, which I most likely would not have fleshed out on my own, was provided by the artist. Indeed, Sterne’s own interpretation appears on the back of a photograph taken soon after the panel installation, which I happened upon and luckily turned over while conducting research at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

This kind of stumbling on to material marked the origins of my book, which I originally thought might comprise an article. It was only when I realized that I would have hundreds of biblical works of art to deal with, by dozens of Jewish American artists, that I knew a full-length project was in order. I also realized that I had to get to the bottom of why these biblical works have been excised from the canon.

Thus was born Jewish Artists and the Bible in Twentieth-Century America.

Samantha Baskind is Professor of Art History at Cleveland State University. She is the author of several books on Jewish American art and culture, which address subjects ranging from fine art to film to comics and graphic novels. She served as editor for U.S. art for the 22-volume revised edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, August 15, 2014 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

Find more of the latest reviews here.

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Book Cover of the Week: The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man

Thursday, August 14, 2014 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Kodesh Press held a special Tu b'Av sale of some of their newest titles, including The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man, a memoir by Finis Leavell Beauchamp of his decision to leave his family's Evangelical dynasty.

 

If the intensity of the book's watercolor cover isn't stirring enough, read its contents: The Terrible Beauty of the Evil Man opens with Beauchamp's childhood memories of being possessed by and exorcised of demons and ends with his transition from post-Evangelical agnosticism to committed Jewish faith.

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  • Double Vision by Tehila Lieberman
  • What We Believe by Darin Strauss
  • An Unusual Relationship: Evangelical Christians and Jews by Yaakov Ariel
  • Interview: Roz Chast

    Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | Permalink

    by Tahneer Oksman

    Tahneer Oksman spoke to Roz Chast about her recently published book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant.

    Tahneer Oksman: What compelled you to write this book about your parents, and why now?

    Roz Chast: I thought it was an interesting and emotionally complex sto­ry—sad and enraging, but sometimes funny. Also, I felt that the topic of how we as a society care for the extremely old is rarely discussed, and maybe that’s not so good, to pretend this doesn’t exist. After all, unless something “happens,” that’s the direction in which we’re all heading.

    Why now? One reason is that dealing with my parents at “the end” was so draining that I needed to think about other things for a while. The other was that even when I decided I wanted to do a book on this subject, I had no idea how it would actually come together. It took me a while to figure out how to structure it.

    TO: What was the process of writing this book like, and how did it differ from creating the cartoons you draw for The New Yorker?

    RC: It was a very organic process. I used what­ever form fit the content best.

    I had a strong sense that it was a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Although a few of the cartoons in the book, like the ones I did after the attack on the World Trade Centers and the one about my mother’s sexual attraction/heel-height theory, were ones I had previously submitted in my weekly “batch” to The New Yorker, the process of doing a book was quite different from doing cartoons. Mainly, the cartoons are individual pieces, and when I was working on the book, I knew that they all had to work together.

    TO: In addition to your comics and handwritten prose, you pepper your book with photographs and some of your mother’s poems. What other kinds of research did you have to do to help you remember the past?

    RC: I had lots of emails that I had written to people about stuff that was going on while I was taking care of my parents. I was able to search for terms like “my mother,” “neurologist,” “The Place,” etc. So I was able to find pretty detailed accounts of events and conversations.

    Also, some of the cartoons in the book were done years ago, like the “dirty checkers” one, the one about the shoes/sex talk with my mother, the oven mitt one, and the World Trade Centers ones. At the time I did those, I had no idea I’d eventually put them in a book about my parents.

    TO: Early in the book, you relate your parents’ sensibilities—and especially their desire not to talk about death—to their Jewish immigrant pasts. How do you relate to your Jewish identity?

    RC: On some deep level, I identify as a Jew. I don’t know exactly what that means. Maybe feeling a little bit like an outsider. And that no matter how much I assimilate, there will always be something about me that will not fit in.

    TO: Were there other works—of art or literature or comics or film—that inspired you or informed your book?

    RC: Not consciously. When I’m working on a project, I tend to be pretty absorbed in doing it my own way.

    TO: Do you think you might like to compose an­other long-form book or memoir in the future?

    RC: I think so, but who knows?

    Tahneer Oksman is assistant professor and director of academic writing at Marymount Manhattan College. Her book on Jewish identity in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.