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Washing the Dead: The Wonder of Ritual

Monday, April 27, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, April 24, 2015 | Permalink

This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

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

Friday, April 24, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Emerging Voices Interview: Shulem Deen

Thursday, April 23, 2015 | Permalink

by Sam Shuman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he said, “what’s it mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Can You Make King David into a Villain?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

So how could I paint him as a villain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interview: Barbara Krasner

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 | Permalink

by Barbara Bietz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To learn more about Barbara Krasner visit her website at www.barbarakrasner.com.

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

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Looking Back at Lot's Wife

Monday, April 20, 2015 | Permalink

Michal Lemberger is the author of the book After Abel and Other Stories. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Lot’s Wife. She’s a fascinating character. So many theologians, poets, writers, and artists have been drawn to this mysterious figure. What does it mean to turn back? Why was she turned into a pillar of salt? Was the pull of home just too powerful to resist a last glance? Did she show too much attachment to the past? Was she punished for giving into a voyeuristic urge to see others suffer?

I thought about her for decades, beginning in Jewish Day School, then in college, where I studied English and Religion, and into graduate school, when I wrote a dissertation about how twentieth-century American poets interpreted the first three chapters of Genesis. I wanted to include her, but Lot’s wife didn’t fit. I guess she had lodged herself into my mind and stayed there, though, waiting patiently for the moment to make her presence felt again. And when she did, I realized that it wasn’t the woman-as-pillar-of-salt that drew me to her. It was what came before. If all we focus on is what happens to her at the end, we lose sight of the life she may have lived up until her dramatic, terrible transformation.

Who was she? What was her name? We could ask these questions about so many of the women who walk through the Bible’s pages. Many of them aren’t even named, because too often a woman’s presence in a story is important or worth noting only because of her connection to a man. Her husband, her father, her brother may each be a main player, but she usually stays in the background.

We are all the heroes of the stories of our own lives, but the women of the Bible aren’t given the chance to play those roles. (That’s even true of some of the women—like Yael or Hagar—who do get to play active roles; their stories often advance the interests of others.) The questions that my book, After Abel, attempts to answer are: what are their stories? How would they think? What would they say if we gave them a chance to speak? What would be important to them—would it be the same as what the men value? Or would there be a shadow world, one that exists next to the officially sanctioned account, in which the details of inheritance or war don’t preoccupy their minds, but would instead be filled with the smell of food, the feel of a newborn’s skin, and the close ties of family and friendship that hold communities together?

It all started with Lot’s Wife, who lived a whole, nameless life before turning into a pillar of salt.

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

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New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, April 17, 2015 | Permalink

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This Book Club and That Book Club

Friday, April 17, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Barbara Stark-Nemon wrote about writing visual arts into literature and how her family chose to remember Germany after World War II. She is the author of the recently published novel Even in Darkness. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Let’s talk about book clubs. I belong to two. I became part of the first one at the invitation of a neighbor, who is not only one of the best readers I know, but happily, one of the best people I know. He told me this book club had been in existence for many years and consisted of a core group of men and women with occasional temporary members.

Book selections for the club are limited to novels that have already come out in paperback. There is no moderator. This group consists largely of lawyers whose politics lean left. Two of the dozen members are practicing Jews. These lawyers read books. Lots of books. After joining the group, I realized that I would be reading many books that I would never read on my own. I liked some, didn’t like others, or had mixed feelings. The books were drawn heavily from Booker Prize lists, NY Times reviews, and referrals from other readers.

As I was beginning to shift my own career toward full-time writing, I thought it was important to read outside my comfort zone, which I’d happily inhabited with authors of literary fiction and the occasional historical novel. Enter, sharp edgy humorists, pessimistic political commentators, cross-cultural and international observers, regional writers, and mythmakers. Often a member researched a book’s historical and literary context, and reported to the group. The conversation was always engaging.

The occasional hard work of finishing well-written books I didn’t much like, and then defending my judgments, was and is good work, but I yearned to read and discuss more of the books I enjoy most. So five years ago, I joined a second book club.

This group consists exclusively of professional Jewish women, perhaps half of whom are lawyers. (What is it with me and book-crazy lawyers?) I almost always enjoy reading their selected books - heavy on the literary fiction, mostly contemporary, but sometimes historical. One person is assigned responsibility for presenting background about the book at each meeting, and then moderating the discussion. It’s a more formal structure than the other group’s, but seems to result in an equally lively interaction. There is more consensus among group members, but also more exploration of characters and thematic elements of books discussed.

One week, my original book club discussed a recent best-selling historical novel by a well-known author. The discussion was spirited, with half the members (including all the men) insisting the book was less engaging than promised, and too drawn out with clichéd characters. The charge of “classic women’s fiction” was leveled. A vocal minority argued that the book was engaging, well written, and deftly descriptive of the racial, gender and political limitations from which the characters had to break free.

In a revelatory summation, the book’s harshest critic asserted that he wanted the club to read books he wouldn’t read on his own, perhaps because they were too long, too challenging or unlikely to immediately draw him. Yet he still wanted them to be substantive and complex enough to occasion good discussion. He wanted the books to discomfit him and to teach him. He thought that evening’s book was too simple to meet these criteria. I disagreed, but was fascinated at how different his perspective was from mine.

The very same month, my all-women’s book club read the same book, and thought it was a fine conversion of real historical characters and events into an instructive, well-written, and engaging novel. The group derived inspiration from reading about the characters’ resilience, endurance, and victory over violence, intolerance, and physical and spiritual suffering. This was a timely lesson for me as an author – the same book, very different reactions. It helped me remember that readers come to the book for all different reasons, a good notion to keep in mind on the eve of a book release.

And, it’s why I’m in two book clubs.

Every story needs a narrator, and Barbara Stark-Nemon stepped up early in life. She learned a fascination with the magic of language from her storytelling grandfather. An undergraduate degree in English literature and art history and a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from the University of Michigan led Stark-Nemon to a career in schools, universities, and hospitals. As a teacher and speech-language therapist, Barbara specialized in child language disorder and deafness; everywhere, there were stories, and the need to be heard and seen that we all share. Today Stark-Nemon writes novels and family histories while gardening, cycling, and creating fiber art in Ann Arbor and Northport, Michigan.

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An Introduction to Jan Karski

Friday, April 17, 2015 | Permalink

by Joshua Muravchik

Few individuals risked more to try to save the Jews from the Holocaust than Jan Karski, and yet what makes his actions most amazing was that the cause of the Jews was secondary to his mission. That mission was to save Poland, and in itself it was a desperate, overwhelming, death-defying struggle that took every ounce of strength, courage, and wit that could be summoned by the Polish patriots who consecrated their lives to it.

A young officer at the time of the Nazi conquest, Jan Kozielewski quickly enrolled in the resistance that spring up almost at once among the occupied Poles, and he was given the first of a string of aliases of which the last, Jan Karski, remained with him the rest of his life. His photographic memory qualified him as a courier because he had a rare ability to recite verbatim long messages that he could convey among the Underground’s political and military leaders without carrying any incriminating document. His missions included travel across the length of the Third Reich to carry communications between the leaders inside Poland and the official Polish government in exile, based in London.

On one of these missions, he was captured and subjected to such tortures by the Gestapo that he chose to take his own life for fear he would succumb to the pain and betray his comrades. This choice reflected the character of a man who lived by the categorical imperative to do the right thing regardless of cost. He found a razor blade discarded by a guard and slit both wrists, but before the life had drained out of him he was discovered and his wounds bandaged. He was put under guard in a hospital to recover so that the Gestapo could resume his interrogation cum torture. But such was his importance to the Underground that a heroic operation was mounted to wrest him from his captors. In retaliation the Nazis executed some twenty to thirty-five (accounts vary) nurses, doctors, and priests associated with the hospital. That others died on his account tormented him to his last days, although the operation was not his choice: indeed his liberators had orders to kill him if they could not succeed in extracting him.

Once free, and given a little time to recuperate from is self-inflected injuries, Karski insisted on returning to his work in the Underground. The risk was now multiplied. The Gestapo knew of him, and the scars on his wrist were a sure mark of his identity. Nonetheless the Underground resumed giving him vital assignments because his gift was rare, and life was cheap.

As he prepared for another mission to London, in 1942, Karski was approached—with the approval of his superiors—by leaders of secret Jewish organizations and asked if he would be willing to shoulder the additional assignment of informing British and American officials, as well as Jewish leaders in the West, that the Jews of Poland were being not merely persecuted but systematically exterminated. Moreover, they said that his message would be all the more compelling if he could be an eye witness. Karski agreed, and he was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto for several hours, a stroll through hell. A few days later he was taken a second time. Then, to top it off, he was insinuated, disguised as a Ukrainian guard who was bribed to lend his uniform, into a camp. Karski believed it was the death camp at Belzec, but later research suggested that it was a temporary facility where some Jews were murdered on the spot, others shipped to larger extermination camps.

Then Karski succeeded in his stealthy infiltration to London and where he recounted what he had seen to Foreign Minister Anthony Eden and to Jewish leaders. From there, he sailed for Washington where he repeated his stories to President Roosevelt and various prominent individuals. All, devastatingly, to no visible effect. FDR pressed him, as Karski later related on film with a bitter straight face, not about the Jews but about whether the Nazis had appropriated many Polish horses for their invasion of the USSR. And Justice Felix Frankfurter, arguably the highest ranking Jew in America, heard him out and then replied: “I cannot believe what you are telling me.”

His main mission, to liberate Poland, was lost as his homeland was freed from the Nazis only by a new conqueror. And his ancillary mission, to alert the world to the Holocaust, came to naught. To express his unbearable frustration at having been ignored, he took a vow not to speak of these events again, and made a new life as an exile in the United States. He broke the vow only after 30-odd years when he was discovered by Claude Lanzmann who was making his epic documentary, Shoah, and cajoled Karski into recounting his experience.

Karski can be seen on film, being interviewed in his Washington apartment. Punctiliously dressed, as was his habit, he begins: “Now I go back 35 years,” he says. Then he cannot go on: “No, I don’t go back.” Collapsing into sobs, he rises and walks off camera to collect himself before returning to continue.



After breaking his silence for Lanzmann, Karski spoke about these unspeakable happenings again often, and became a great tribune against anti-Semitism. Eventually he was given the rare recognition of honorary citizenship of Israel although he remained a devout Catholic all this life. The Jews were not his primary cause, but he was a man of such rare rectitude that when he saw what was being done to them, he gave everything he had to try to stop it. And yet, he once told a mostly-student audience at Georgetown University, where he taught, that he believed he would have to answer to God for not having done enough.

Read more about Jan Karski in the book Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World (Jan Karski).

Joshua Muravchik is the author of Making David Into Goliath: How the World Turned Against Israel.

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