The ProsenPeople

Jewish Book Council Staff Picks for April 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017 | Permalink

Independent Bookstore Day is this weekend! If you're visiting your local bookstore to support your local literary anchor on Saturday—or any day of the week—let us be your guide: check out the books Jewish Book Council's staff recommends to our readers for April 2017!

Want to browse past staff picks? Scroll through our monthly lists of recommended reads or browse our staff libraries!

Suzanne

Disobedience: A Novel by Naomi Alderman extremely interesting story of a young woman who fled her ultra-Orthodox life, only return for the first time after the death of her father, the head rabbi of a London Jewish community. This story deals with her re-connection of what was and how she deals with this past and her current life. I highly suggest this thoroughly thought-provoking book. Can't wait to see how they make this into an upcoming movie!

Carol

In Joshua Cohen’s Moving Kings, two directionless Israelis, Yoav and Uri, have just completed their army service and get jobs working in Yoav's uncle's moving company in Queens. Cohen's portrayal of the grim, gritty, often brutal world they inhabit—and the one they inhabited in the IDF—is boldly drawn in what is often insanely insightful and mordantly funny prose. Hard-hitting and entertaining, this is Cohen's most accessible novel yet.

Becca

The Tincture of Time: a Memoir of (Medical) Uncertainty by Elizabeth L. Silver is one of the most poignant and thought-provoking memoirs I've read. As an infant, Silver's daughter has an unexplained brain bleed. While she relentlessly seek medical answers, Silver also looks for solace in religion, literature, history, and the law. All of these references are fascinating, but none can provide complete reassurance—much like the book itself. This memoir is a beautiful exploration of situations in which the only thing that can provide a definite answer is time.

Miri

After the Fire by Lauren Belfer is a great read for book clubs—it even won the Book Club category in the 2016 National Jewish Book Award—as it raises all sorts of larger questions about obligation, religion, culture and art, and responsibilities.

Nat

I’m head-over-heels in love with Elan Mastai’s science fiction novel All Our Wrong Todays, the chronicles of a hapless accidental time traveler from “the world we were supposed to have,” 2016. Mastai fuses humor with poignancy, human foible with heroism in a cast of flawed, sympathetic characters hurtled toward and away from one another by the full range from passion to the pettiest of pursuits. Steered by a series of successive failures and fail-safes, the novel takes readers on a rare, captivating caper across the channels of time, deftly hinting at the inevitable without exposing the unforeseen—or relying on cheap plot twists.

I’m also in the middle of Sonora: A Novel by Hannah Lillith Assadi, a hazy yet cutting account of adolescence and displacement in the Arizona desert, where the daughter of a Palestinian father and Israeli mother discovers sex, drugs, dreams, and premonitions of death.

Naomi

Carolyn

Evie


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New Reviews April 28, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017 | Permalink

Featured Content:

Interview with David Bezmozgis
The National Jewish Book Award-winning author discusses adapting his short story "Natasha" to film, observing the differences within immigrant communities, and fearing for the future of literature and cinema.

Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and Jewish American History
Great news for those who couldn't make it Jewish Book Council’s Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation last month: a recording of the full discussion with Lynn Povich, Bonnie S. Anderson, and Rebecca Traister is now available for viewing online!

How Wives Pay for Their Husbands' Crimes
“She must have known,” is the first response Randy Susan Meyers hears from readers about her new novel, 'The Widow of Wall Street'—and she wants to know why.

Stories We Haven't Told: Six Neglected Holocaust Narratives to Preorder for Fall 2017
In commemoration of Yom HaShoah, the Jewish Day of Holocaust Remembrance, Jewish Book Council compiled a preview of six new works of nonfiction unearthing the neglected narratives of the Shoah.

How Wives Pay for Their Husbands' Crimes

Thursday, April 27, 2017 | Permalink

Last week, Randy Susan Meyers discussed the gender discrepancies in financial literacy and shared how the UJA-Federation saved her life. With the release of her fourth novel, The Widow of Wall Street, Randy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Crimes have multiple victims, including those who receive the least (or most inappropriate) attention: the family of the perpetrator. As fifty-plus accusations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby piled up, his wife of 52 years, Camille Cosby was damned for not knowing, damned for not telling (under the assumption that, of course, she knew about his… indiscretions), and damned for covering up her husband’s crimes.

With no evidence.

When Bernie Madoff’s crimes came to light, Ruth Madoff caught the rage. Again, with no evidence.

The world expected Hillary Clinton to answer for Bill Clinton’s infidelities, both by denying the charges in the aftermath and then absorbing the blame as she ran for president. Donald Trump’s infidelity was somehow equated with Hillary Clinton’s husband’s infidelity.

The rage flying at Hillary Clinton, Camille Cosby, and Ruth Madoff is encased in years of baked-in sexism, not dissimilar to the Betty Crocker school of blame-the-victim-unless-she-is-above-all-reproach (Betty Crocker representing the lovely, perfect woman). Anyone working in criminal justice recognizes this syndrome: female victims, whether of strangers or husbands, must be above reproach to merit either sympathy or empathy, and they are deemed guilty and imperfect until proven otherwise.

Even women who consider themselves victims of men will blame and assert that wives can and should control their husbands. According to theNew York Times, “accuser Juanita Broaddrick, whose claim of a 1978 sexual assault has been denied by the Clintons, thinks Hillary Clinton was too passive. ‘I always felt if she’d been a stronger person... she could have done something about his behavior,’ she said.” An article in the Philadelphia Tribune says that Camille Cosby “was no wallflower in her husband’s career, observers point out. She was his business manager and according to a February 2014 Ebony magazine story, a ‘shrewd’ one.” Andy Borowitz savagely parodied Ruth Madoff in The Huffington Post: “Just hours after her husband Bernie Madoff was sentenced … Ruth Madoff expressed shock and dismay at her husband’s behavior, telling reporters, ‘This is not the man I owned nine homes with. When you spend hundreds of millions of dollars with someone, you think you know him.… I guess I was wrong.’”

Ruth, Camille, and Hillary became the joke and the target of rage over their husband’s crimes and misdemeanors. Not a shred of sympathy was spared. Reactions to hearing the subject of my new novel, The Widow of Wall Street (based on a situation not unlike the Madoffs, from both the wife and husband’s point of view) fascinated and saddened me, as the first thing most men and women say is, “She must have known,” or “Of course she knew,” with an air of surety one usually reserves for an awareness of the closest of friends.

Why? Why must she have known?

Who does not have a friend who suddenly found out that her husband of forty years was cheating for decades, a cousin who learned her husband hid money in his business accounts? A sister who tragically finds out about her partner’s affairs when she gets tested for AIDS?

Fascinating in the umbrage is how the same people who insist that she must know don’t question how financially literature men and women were fooled by what turned out to be the most naïve of plans. After three years of researching The Widow of Wall Street, I’m shocked that anyone schooled in finance (and many of his victims were financially literate) believed in Madoff’s constantly, year-in, year-out, positive returns, the lack of up-to-date computerization, and the lack of online confirmations. And yet they did, while we insist that Ruth Madoff, who was neither an accountant—though she helped her husband with bookkeeping early in his career—nor a stockbroker, banker, money manager, or investor, must have known the details of the two arms of her husband’s convoluted business.

Perhaps we think these things because we want to believe that we, of course, are immune. That our husbands have been and will always be above board in all they do. That we can never be fooled and there is no wool to be pulled over our eyes. We are protected.

Like so many musts in this world, these stories we tell ourselves end up being a flimsy garment we wear to feel secure and safe in our lives, because the reality of our fragility is a frightening as it is omnipresent. It can’t happen to me. That is the unspoken theme that we clutch.

Randy Susan Meyers's novels are informed by her work with families impacted by emotional and family violence— and a long journey from idolizing bad boys to loving a good man. After years working in social service and criminal justice, Meyers’s works of fiction have twice been chosen by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as “Must Read Fiction.”


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Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History

Wednesday, April 26, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

Great news for those of you who couldn't make it to "Good Girls, Nasty Women: Gender and American Jewish History" last month: a recording of the full conversation with Lynn Povich, Bonnie S. Anderson, and Rebecca Traister is now available for viewing online.

On March 28, 2017, Jewish Book Council and Jewish Women's Archive hosted a conversation with feminist writers Bonnie Anderson, Lynn Povich, and Rebecca Traister about the women behind history's great revolutions and contemporary movements—from the activists of America's Antebellum to the women's liberation stirrings of the midcentury to today's "nasty" women—as part of the third season of Jewish Book Council’s Unpacking the Book: Jewish Writers in Conversation series at The Jewish Museum, moderated by Bari Weiss of The Wall Street Journal.

You can find out more about the authors' books by clicking the book covers below—and be sure to download the BOOK CLUB GUIDE to all three titles to discuss these books with your reading group!

Will you be in New York on May 3rd? Join Jewish Book Council for our final event in the 2017 season, a conversation with the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize Fellows: Paul Goldberg, Idra Novey, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Rebecca Schiff, and Daniel Torday. Click the button below to register for the discussion and award ceremony!


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Interview: David Bezmozgis

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 | Permalink

with Ranen Omer-Sherman

Photo: David Franco

With the American debut of Natasha, a Canadian film based on the short story by National Jewish Book Award winner David Bezmozgis, in select theaters this week, Jewish Book Council sat down with the author to discuss the story, the film, and David Bezmozgis’s career and writing at large.

Ranen Omer-Sherman: Your short story “Natasha” contrasts a young Canadian’s stoner, suburban life with the tough exigencies of his newly arrived female relative’s earlier adolescence in Russia. What were some of the most significant challenges you encountered in trying to capture the story’s essence on film?

David Bezmozgis: To be honest, the most significant challenges were practical not creative—although the creative ones weren’t insignificant. Perhaps my primary motivation for turning "Natasha" into a film was to render a faithful account of contemporary North American Russian Jewish immigrant life on the screen. I’d seen it done in Israeli cinema, but never North American. To do it, the film needed to be mostly in Russian and cast with real Russian-speaking actors. Raising the money for such a film and finding the right actors was hard. There were just enough quality Russian-speaking actors in Canada—most of them trained in the former Soviet Union and Israel—to make the filming possible.

ROS: You vividly evoke the sharp generational contrasts dependant on when individuals emigrated from Latvia and Moscow. Are those differences still strongly felt?

DB: The film was shot in 2014, before the most heated debates about refugees and immigrants, but one aspect that rarely gets spoken about even now is the difference within immigrant communities. Most of these differences have to do with class—which today is about money—but some has to do with psychology. And so part of what accounts for the conflict in Natasha is the disparity between older and newer immigrants. It’s a distinction that diminishes over time, but in the film, we see it when it’s most acute.

ROS: After immersing yourself in shooting Natasha for many months, have your feelings about your vocation as an artist changed in any way? Do you feel a greater affinity with cinematic expression than fiction now? In your self-reflective article, “Origin, Story” you candidly describe your unease about the future of literature. Do you worry about the fate of the novel?

DB: I worry about the fate of literature and cinema pretty much equally. I’d worry less if there was some other form emerging that did what great books and films do—which is allow a reader or viewer to feel a sense of communion with another human consciousness. That kind of art is usually the product of a single authorial voice. An author. A film director. I don’t know if the readership or viewership is shrinking, only that there seems to be less money for people to write books and make movies whose objective is not primarily commercial.

ROS: Why did you choose to update “Natasha” (originally set in the 1980s) to the age of social media? Was that primarily a pragmatic choice, given the production costs of getting historical details right?

DB: I updated it for both practical and creative reasons. My previous film, Victoria Day, was set in the 1980s and I was well acquainted with the hassles of making a period picture—even one set in the recent past. I asked myself if the Natasha story was particular to the 1980s or if these characters and situations remained plausible today. I concluded they did. Once I decided that, I was glad for the cinematic and narrative opportunities that texting and the Internet provided. The way we communicate and the way we access pornography is very different today compared to the early 1990s.

However, very soon, my film will be dated. Canada is legalizing marijuana. So Mark’s sideline, biking around the northern Toronto suburbs delivering weed, is soon to be redundant.

ROS: What was it like to cast the film—to bring Mark, Natasha, and others to life?

DB: Like everyone, I had an image in my mind how the various characters should look. Once casting starts, however, you discover just how plastic that image is. A great actor will revise your sense of how a character can look—up to a point. Certainly with Mark and Natasha, the actors had to be able to credibly pass for teenagers.

As for Alex Ozerov (who plays Mark), I was aware of him from smaller roles in independent Canadian films. Once I saw his work and met him, he was the only actor I considered for the role. Natasha was the first film in which he played the lead and assumed the challenge of carrying a picture. I think he’s exceptional. And thanks in part to his role on The Americans, many other people are now discovering what a great talent he is.

ROS: The film’s final frame shows Mark gazing from the outside of his home through the window, occupying Natasha’s former position in their relationship. That profoundly evocative image is faithful to the story, but did you have any doubts about whether that choice would succeed as well as it did cinematically?

DB: I always imagined the film would end in the same way as the story. Even in the story, it is an imagistic ending. The film, however, doesn’t grant the viewer the benefit of Mark’s interior monologue, but I think what he feels is implicit in his action and informed by the audience’s experience of everything they’ve just seen. The ending is supposed allow the viewer space to infer the meaning. For viewers who like to be granted that kind of space—and I am one—I think it is satisfying. For viewers who want more explicit emotional instruction, it can be frustrating—though even most of these people, after asking for my interpretation, intuit more or less the correct meaning on their own.

ROS: Although you have written two more recent novels (The Free World and The Betrayers), not so long ago you described the stories gathered in your first book Natasha as “constituting the core of my imaginative life.” Could you say a little about why you still feel so deeply connected to those earlier works?

DB: That line from my journals refers to the curious little anecdotes and personal stories I’ve heard from my family and other Russian immigrants. That entry referred to my mother receiving the gift of a thermos from her friend, Anya. My mother and Anya are both widows and live in the same condominium building. Other Russian-Jewish widows also live in this building. My mother has known some of them for decades. They go for walks together. They meet for coffee. They know one another’s children and grandchildren. When my mother demurred about accepting the gift-thermos, Anya said: “What, I can’t even give you a thermos?” Much of my artistic sensibility can be derived from this exchange.

ROS: You have written movingly on the personal and professional impact of the great American writer Leonard Michaels (1933-2003), especially on what he taught you about embracing the inescapably personal nature of writing, not evading it. Can you say more about his influence?

DB: I recognized in Leonard Michaels a kindred spirit. His writing seemed like a more erudite and better-realized version of what I wanted to do. His sensibility had also been sufficiently informed by the class of gift-thermos stories. He’d found a means to transmute the humor and the pain of those stories though a highly condensed prose style. It set the standard to which I aspired. It still does.

ROS: There is a moment in “Minyan” when the narrator describes Shabbat morning services in an old shul: “Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences, I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.” Is that just the narrator, or does that affinity for Jewish historic consciousness rather than traditional practice speak for you as well?

DB: Is it possible to write that line and not share the sentiment?

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


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Six Neglected Holocaust Narratives to Preorder for Fall 2017

Monday, April 24, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Nat Bernstein

The Holocaust: A New History by Laurence Rees

“To the Nazis, Freda Wineman’s crime was simple,” Laurence Rees’s new study of the Holocaust opens. “She was Jewish.” As a writer, filmmaker, and former Creative Director of the BBC TV History series, Rees has been the driving force behind historical literature and television programs on the Holocaust in Britain. In his newest work, Rees tackles the prevailing question of contemporary Holocaust studies—how and why did the Holocaust happen?—from a deeply human perspective, balancing historical analysis with 25 years of unpublished testimony from survivors and perpetrators of the Third Reich and the Shoah, polished and presented in Rees’s compelling prose. Wading through the individual stories of the people he has encountered over the course of his career as a historical documentarian, Rees imbues this new chronology of the darkest period in modern European history with the personal narratives—and human empathy—that are too often missing from contemporary Holocaust research.

Saving One’s Own: Jewish Rescuers During
the Holocaust
by Mordecai Paldiel



Saved from the Holocaust with his family as a young child by Simon Galley, a Catholic priest who abetted Jews in crossing the Swiss border, Mordecai Paldiel headed Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations through the turn of the twenty-first century, adding approximately 18,000 names to the roster of non-Jewish rescuers honored by Israel’s national Holocaust monument and research center. In the process of this noble work, Paldiel discovered the stories of Jewish resistors who helped their clansmen escape Europe. Feeling that a significant narrative of heroism in the face of the Shoah and the Nazi occupation has remained neglected, upon retiring from his position at Yad Vashem Paldiel dedicated himself to chronicling the stories of Jewish rescuers who risked their own lives to remain where they could conduct operations to smuggle other Jews to safety. Focusing on different regions by chapter, Paldiel introduces a wide cast of previously unacknowledged saviors, from underground network agents to partisan fighters to a Berlin rebbetzin who facilitated the safe passage of thousands of Jewish German children to Palestine.

Stealth Altruism: Forbidden Care as Jewish
Resistance in the Holocaust
by Arthur B. Shostak



Exploring another neglected narrative of Jewish resistance in the Holocaust, Arthur B. Shostak redefines the very concept of heroism to include the acts of caring for others in an environment of evil and terror. Exploring the unrecognized instances of forbidden kindness among victims of the Nazi camps—holding weak neighbors up at roll call, switching tasks with prisoners assigned to hard labor details, sharing food and clothing—Shostak reveals the largely untold history of humanity at the darkest moments of the Shoah. The author also shares some of his research findings, interviews with survivors, and Holocaust memorial and education centers at www.stealthaltruism.com.

Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots
Against Hollywood and America
by Steven. J. Ross



While the United States trained its law enforcement agencies’ focus on Soviets and communists, the plots and activities of Nazi operatives on American soil in the early 1930s went unnoticed but for one vigilante spy ring headed by Hollywood attorney Leon Lewis, “the most dangerous Jew in Los Angeles” as the Nazis would come to call him. Viewing Hollywood as the greatest propaganda machine in the world—and eying key military positions and armories along the Pacific Coast—the Nazis planned out a siege of Los Angeles, plotting to massacre the city’s Jews and hang twenty of Hollywood’s brightest stars. From 1933 through the end of World War II, Lewis and his network of military veterans—and their wives—infiltrated all Nazi and fascist activities in the City of Angels, uncovering and snuffing out the Nazi’s sinister plot to destroy Los Angeles.

Textual Silence: Unreadability and the Holocaust
by Jessica Lang



Sidestepping Theodor Adorno’s famous aphorism, “To write poetry after the Holocaust is barbaric,” Jessica Lang questions whether Holocaust literature across form and style can or even should translate the Nazi genocide to those who did not experience it themselves. Defining the expression of the limitations and barriers of language to adequately convey the horror and trauma of those who survived—blank spaces, trailing punctuation, italic, and narrative interruptions—as “textual silence,” Lang claims these critical breaks in poetry, novels, diaries, and memoirs as essential characteristics of the genre.

For Two Thousand Years by Mihail Sebastian

Originally published under his penname in 1934, Iosif Mendel Hechter’s diary of Romania’s nascent antisemitism—growing increasingly rampant together with Hitler’s popularity in Germany and his installation as chancellor the year before—highlights the violence and injustices committed against Jewish populations throughout Europe, even within intellectual circles and institutions of higher education, long before the war began. Sebastian describes scampering around his university campus in Bucharest to avoid beatings on his way to lectures and discovering that even his closest friends and comrades believed the antisemitic propaganda proliferating throughout the continent—including the beloved mentor Sebastian asked to write the preface to this very book, which Sebastian nonetheless included in the original publication out of spite:

It is an assimilationist illusion, it is the illusion of so many Jews who sincerely believe that they are Romanian… Remember that you are Jewish!... Are you Iosif Hechter, a human being from Brăila on the Danube? No, you are a Jew from Brăila on the Danube.

Recalling the widespread adoption and impact of such beliefs—and what they led to—seems especially important in wake of recent statements made in by the White House press secretary two weeks ago, drawing condemnation from Jewish organizations and scholars, including Deborah Lipstadt.

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Reading List: CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center

Monday, April 24, 2017 | Permalink

My name is Eva Mozes Kor. I am a survivor of Auschwitz, a survivor of human medical experimentation on twins by Dr. Josef Mengele, and now, I am trying to survive old age. As the founding director of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a human rights champion, internationally known author and speaker, and advocate for the power of forgiveness, I am recommending these books because they help us understand how the Nazis rose to power, what happened to many Jews and how they survived the death camps, and how the survivors coped afterwards.

As we come together on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, also known as Auschwitz Liberation Day, this list of books is geared to help us remember, but also to further understand the circumstances around the Holocaust at that time and how survivors moved forward with their lives.

If you’re looking for a book that discusses Nazi collaborators in our midst…
1) AMERICAN SWASTIKA by Charles Higham

If you’re looking for a book that discusses The Nazi-American money plot…
2) TRADING WITH THE ENEMY by Charles Higham

If you’re looking for a book that discusses America's recruitment of Nazis and its disastrous effect…
3) BLOWBACK by Christopher Simpson

If you’re looking for a book that discusses Hitler's Alliance with Germany's great chemical companies…
4) THE CRIME & PUNISHMENT OF I.G. FARBEN (BASF) by Joseph Borkin.

If you’re looking for a book that gives you an insider’s perspective of Dr. Josef Mengele…
5) A DOCTOR'S EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT by Miklos Nyiszli

If you’re looking for a book that showcases the unconditional faith in human beings' ability to heal…
6) MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Dr. Victor E. Frankl

If you’re looking for a book that provides a 10-year-old’s unfiltered perspective of Auschwitz and shows young people that we can overcome many hardships in life and even triumph over disaster….
7) SURVIVING THE ANGEL OF DEATH by Eva Mozes Kor & Lisa Rojany Buccieri

If you’re looking for a book that provides early childhood education about prejudice…
8) LITTLE EVA & MIRIAM IN FIRST GRADE by Eva Mozes Kor

If you’re looking for a book that provides information about the twins’ perspective as guinea pigs of Dr. Josef Mengele...
9) ECHOES FROM AUSCHWITZ by Eva Mozes Kor

If you’re looking for a book that shares the story of a Sunderkomando working for 3 yrs. in the gas chambers…
10) EYE WITNESS IN AUSCHWITZ by Filip Muller

If you’re looking for a book that goes into detail concerning Nazi Eugenics to create a perfect race…
11) MURDEROUS SCIENCE by Beno Muller Hill

If you’re looking for a book about a 17 year old who escaped Auschwitz to alert the world, but the world didn't believe him…
12) I CANNOT FORGIVE by Rudolf Vrba


You can learn more about Eva Mozes Kor by visiting www.candlesholocaustmuseum.org, following her on Twitter at @evamozeskor.

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Money, Me, and The Widow of Wall Street

Friday, April 21, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Randy Susan Meyers shared how the UJA-Federation impacted and even saved her life. With the release of her fourth novel, The Widow of Wall Street, Randy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Money. It’s our last taboo. People spill seamy details about their sex lives before talking about their finances, salary, or savings accounts. Yet despite this curtain of silence, money is not only (supposedly) the root of all evil, it’s at the heart of relationship battles, shattered dreams, and midnight wakefulness.

Money, sadly, is often how men measure their worth and how women measure men. We forgive dreary people their dreadfulness a lot quicker when they possess fat checkbooks—particularly when their riches are combined with a successful career. Writers laugh louder at the jokes of acclaimed fellow authors; relatives give a bit more latitude to rich aunties and uncles. All of us, whether with awareness or not, bow a bit in the face of a fat wallet.

Women—especially women of my age—grow up expecting to if not be supported by, be with a partner who pays the lion’s share of the rent. Young women today grow up with higher expectations (yes!), but they still harbor dreams of Prince Moneypants rescuing them; how could they not after watching fairy tale messages in classic movies such as Pretty Woman. These images stalk us; we buy into them, despite ourselves. When that man of ours walks out still holding the reins to the family money, we’re destroyed.

Each time a financial scandal unfolds, I wonder what was the self-told story the perpetrator believed that let him hurt so many people, and what is it like for his family?

When Bernie Madoff’s crimes made headlines, I thought about his wife Ruth and what it would be like to wake up one day and learn that one’s entire life was built on air. Every crime has multiple victims—and those victims usually include the family of the perpetrator. I know from working with criminals for ten years about the stories they told to excuse themselves—excuses that simultaneously fascinated and repulsed me. I learned how even those engaging in the most heinous behavior, manage to explain away their exploits—even if only to themselves.

Writing The Widow of Wall Street allowed me to explore my fascination with how criminal scandal affects those closest to the perpetrator—and how they applied to the family of Bernie and Ruth Madoff—by inhabiting the point of view of both my main characters, caught in a similar crime: husband, Jake Pierce, and wife, Phoebe Pierce. My lens on marriage and money sharpened.

White-collar criminals, accustomed to entitlement, commit the most outrageous schemes and crimes, always believing they’ll find a way out. Women, conditioned to second chair financially, don’t question the most unlikely of financial scenarios claimed by their partners.

So many women—many of my friends and relatives— are clueless about their finances. This added to my belief from the outset that someone like Ruth Madoff could absolutely be unaware of what her Ponzi-scheming husband had done. (He pulled the wool over the eyes of captains of industry and CEOs. Why not his wife?)

I learned the word knippel at my mother’s knee. She was so secretive about her money that I assume she even had some she hid from herself. She urged me to keep a knippel when upon the occasion of my first marriage.

At 19.

Looking back, not such bad advice. At the time, high on feminism, equality, and a cotton hippie wedding dress, I scoffed at the idea of hiding anything in marriage. However, I soon learned equality as an ideal was not equally prominent in my husband’s mind as it was in mine.

By the time my marriage ended, I longed for full purview over the checkbook.

Ten years later, divorced, I had it. Broke, I let my credit card debt pile up—ignoring the growing interest, excusing myself because I was the sole support of the house and being unable to pay bills is tiring—and buying stuff for is soothing. So, you charge one more thing, open one more credit line . . . and the road to madness continues. I pushed the problems back; they woke me at three in the morning. Worry gnawed. How did I assuage my fears? By spending more money. The cycle grew.

Avoidance brings stress. I should have listened to my mother, who always said pay yourself first. My mother, horrified at the idea of my debt, rescued me via a kind (and wealthy, thus worshipped by her) relative who gave me an interest-free loan, which I used to pay off my credit cards and I vowed to never have credit card interest again. Interest makes banks fat and turns us into twisted ropes of tension.

Since then, my husband has convinced me that avoiding the truth never makes the truth go away. What is, is. But sometimes, what we’re told is, isn’t. There were many messages I took away from writing The Widow of Wall Street, including how often people wake up learning they live in a different marriage than their spouse, and how children always end up as collateral damage in their parent’s crimes.

Most of all, I’ll never forget this: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Randy Susan Meyers's novels are informed by her work with families impacted by emotional and family violence— and a long journey from idolizing bad boys to loving a good man. After years working in social service and criminal justice, Meyers’s works of fiction have twice been chosen by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as “Must Read Fiction.”

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How the UJA Saved My Life

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 | Permalink

Randy Susan Meyers’s fourth novel, The Widow of Wall Street, came out over Passover last week! With the release of her new book, Randy is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


The acknowledgements for my first novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, begin with these words: Before offering thanks to those who helped with this book, let me say this: I wish this story were science fiction instead of realism. For ten years, I worked with men who destroyed their families—men who weren’t monsters, but who did monstrous deeds. This book is for their children, the ones who suffer unnoticed, and for all the amazing men and women who dedicate their lives to helping these children. You may never know whose life you saved. Thank you, Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, Doris Bedell, and Camp Mikan.

The novel was about sisters witnessing their father murder their mother. What I didn’t add in my acknowledgments was how years earlier, my father tried to kill my mother.

Challenging childhoods take many forms. Usually it’s an amalgam of hardships—from emotion, physical, and fiscal problems to abuse to loneliness. Smacks and screams thankfully have a time limit, but neglect is the evil gift that never stops.

Even benign neglect—like being a latchkey kid—can foster loneliness.

When trouble fills a family, kids are pushed to the background. I lived in a land of my own imagining, where I believed my real parents, President Kennedy and the First Lady, had left me to fend for myself, testing a ‘cream will rise to the top’ theory. Meanwhile, my beleaguered sister, Jill, was trying her sullen best to cook us supper by nine years old.

If it hadn’t been for the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, I doubt my sister and I could have ended up strong at the broken places. Our mom was a struggling single mother who did her very best. Our dad suffered in ways we’ll never understand, papering his sadness with drugs and dying at 36.

But we had the summer. Through the magical generosity of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, we spent our summers at Camp Mikan, our paradise. We entered a bus somewhere in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and came out of the bus blinking in the sunlight and breathing the sweet green air of Harriman State Park. Sunshine! Swimming! Friends!

Visibility!

In memory, it was a Wizard of Oz transition from a black-and-white life in Brooklyn to the technicolor of Camp Mikan. At camp, we went from unnoticed to the coolness of being all summer campers. My sister became a big shot, a member of an envied clique, moving up the ranks of camp hierarchy until eventually she was head of the waterfront (only the coolest job in the world). I became part of a pack of safely rebellious friends who kept me going through the lonely winters.

We got to be kids.

I starred in Guys and Dolls. Jill gathered swimming groupies. We hiked. Canoed. Short-sheeted counselors. The head counselors, Frenchy and Danny, a married couple, taught me I could be lovable, and through loving them I learned early on that interracial marriage was a non-issue; Luke Bragg taught me to get up on stage, and from being with him I learned through osmosis that gay or straight made no difference.

We got to be kids.

Women ran Camp Mikan. They taught me and Jill that women were strong and loving and firm and trustworthy. They taught us that is was possible to be protected in this world. The camp was racially, culturally and ethnically mixed. We learned to be friends across all borders.

Back home, we were once again invisible and quiet children cleaning the house, uncomplaining and obedient, waiting for the year to pass so we could again have a childhood. Summer came and once more we could swim, sing, mold clay, hit a ball, learn folkdance (I still dance the misirlou in my mind), and unclench from being coiled watchers.

Doris Bedell, the camp director, shaped our lives more than she’d ever imagine. She loved us, she scolded us, and she made us feel seen. She probably helped my sister become the best teacher in Brooklyn. Her memory stayed with me when I ran a camp and community center in Boston.

Summer can save a kid. One person can offer a child enough hope to hang on. Think about this as we get ready to slide into school vacation.

One adult can change a child’s world.

Remember this.

Think of who you can touch.

Thank you, Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. Thank you for my childhood.

Randy Susan Meyers's novels are informed by her work with families impacted by emotional and family violence— and a long journey from idolizing bad boys to loving a good man. After years working in social service and criminal justice, Meyers’s works of fiction have twice been chosen by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as “Must Read Fiction.”

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A Picture’s Worth

Friday, April 14, 2017 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about reading Talmud as literature and producing new stories on a monthly deadline. With the release of his new book, Necessary Stories, Haim is guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.

Illustrations used to be standard in fiction. Can we conceive of Through the Looking Glass without John Tenniel’s illustrations or Phiz’s illustrations for Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers? That sort of partnership rarely happens today, but I’m privileged to be a throwback.

The Jerusalem Report has commissioned a drawing for each of the stories I’ve written over the last nine years. The lion’s share of them have been done by Avi Katz, one of Israel’s finest illustrators. Three of them appear in my newly-published collection of stories, and another one (which accompanied the first post in this ProsenPeople series) appears on the cover. Here I talk about three drawings Avi produced for stories that appear in my new Necessary Stories volume. Unfortunately, I was not able to include these illustrations in the book.

“Peripheral Vision” takes place in an emergency clinic not far from my home. Hanan, a young man with an infection caused by a biking injury, sits in the waiting room, before being called in for treatment. He’s got a new girlfriend and is looking at a photo of her on his phone. The photo is, well, a very personal one.

He suddenly notices that he’s sitting next to a Haredi man of about his own age. The man’s young son sits on his lap. The father is trying to interest his son in a holy book he is reading, but the boy’s eyes keep wandering to the picture on Hanan’s phone. A conversation ensues, about the book the man is studying and the picture on the phone.

What the illustrator has captured in this picture is something I see as very basic to my work. Perhaps because I began my writing career as a playwright, I almost always visualize my stories as if they were taking place on a stage. (In fact, they work very well in performance.) The placement of characters in space, in juxtaposition with their surroundings, is key to conveying mood and theme. Wherever possible, I avoid stating directly what my characters are thinking or feeling and instead convey that with a gesture, a movement, a juxtaposition with some other person or object.

Avi’s illustration for “Peripheral Vision” captures this perfectly. The scene is a large room, but the three central characters and the two objects that occupy their attention—the phone and the holy book—form a self-contained and tight assemblage that brings the characters close—perhaps too close for comfort—within this large space. Note the two triangles—that of the figures themselves, and that of their gazes. Avi shows that the eyes of each character are drawn by something other than what it intends or is expected to see—the boy eyes the phone, the boy’s father considers Hanan, and Hanan squints at the book.

Avi’s illustration for “The Plowman Meets the Reaper” augments my story. Just before the Six Day War of 1967, on the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv train, a young boy whose indigent family immigrated from Iraq encounters a woman originally from Vienna. The story follows how each character depicts the other in his or her mind, and at one point on the train ride they actually draw each other. In choosing to depict this moment, the illustration calls the reader’s attention to an underlying theme that might otherwise be missed.

Understandably, Avi generally chooses to depict the story’s central characters interacting at a key moment. Sometimes, however, I suggest to him that he take an indirect approach. A picture without a human presence can be more subtly suggestive of a story’s deeper currents. Such is the case with his illustration for “Fireflies,” the penultimate story in the book. Rather than describe the story, I’ll let you read it and then consider whether any other sort of picture would have worked as well.

Haim Watzman is a writer and translator who has worked with many of Israel’s leading authors and scholars. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and Necessary Stories.

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