Nomi Eve is the author of Henna House and The Family Orchard, which was a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection and was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She has an MFA in fiction writing from Brown University and has worked as a freelance book reviewer for The Village Voice and New York Newsday. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train Stories, The Voice Literary Supplement, Conjunctions, and The International Quarterly. She teaches fiction writing at Drexel University and lives in Philadelphia with her family.
Bruce Feiler is one of America’s most thoughtful and popular voices on contemporary life. He writes the “This Life” column about today’s families for the Sunday New York Times and is the author of six consecutive New York Times bestsellers, including Walking the Bible and The Council of Dads. He is the writer/presenter of the PBS series Walking the Bible and Sacred Journeys With Bruce Feiler. His latest book, The Secrets of Happy Families, is a bold playbook for families today. It collects best practices for modern-day parents from some of the country’s most creative minds, including tops designers in Silicon Valley, elite peace negotiators, the creators of Modern Family and the Green Berets. A native of Savannah, Georgia, Bruce lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Linda Rottenberg, and their identical twin daughters.
Posted by Nat Bernstein
Jewish Book Council is proud to announce the realization of its project to create a digitized archive of the Jewish Book Annual in partnership with the Center for Jewish History, presenting over half a century of national discourse on Jewish literature in an interactive, searchable format to honor the 90th anniversary of the first Jewish Book Week.
Last week, contributing editor Nat Bernstein introduced the archives with a reflection on the first volume of Jewish Book Annual and its contributors’ awareness of world events in the midst of World War II. Understanding the Nazi’s mass extermination of European Jewry and the writers, artists, and scholars among them as the murder not only of people but of expression and the written word, the Annual called upon American Jews to take on the mantle of Jewish literature theretofore helmed by the names listed in the journal’s annual, tragically lengthening roster of “The Academy on High”.
Emerging from the same period, one of the more academically compelling features of the earliest issues of the Jewish Book Annual was the linguistic conversation between English, Hebrew, and Yiddish—then the linguae francae of American Jewry. Although today Jewish Book Council primarily works only with books in English or English translation, its mission and readership held different aims, interests, and consciousness over the midcentury years between the Holocaust and Israel’s claim for independence.
Reflecting on the reception of the inaugural volume, the publication’s editor, Dr. Solomon Grayzel, noted the following year: “Our Annual of 1942 was hailed as proof of the inherent unity of Jewish culture in the United States, despite the trilingual form in which our efforts—literary and educational—manifest themselves. To prove the existence of and to enhance this unity are, indeed, the twin purposes of the Jewish Book Council. It was created in order to provide a Cultural Exchange for the three linguistic groups in American Israel, all of which are American, all of which are Jewish, and all of which strive to enrich their common cultural heritage.”
To that end, the Jewish Book Annual originally featured not only sections written in each language but an intricate and thoughtful web of discourse and reference between them. Readers of one language were kept informed of the works published in the others, as well as of any translations made available in their own, over the previous year. “Apart from serving as a guide and a source book,” Grayzel wrote in the 1948 – 1949 issue, “the Annual serves to acquaint the users of one language with the literary products of the other two.”
Beyond promoting and enhancing Jewish literature among the broadest possible audience of American Jewish readers, this trilingual effort was rooted in a national clamor for unity as the events of the Holocaust, its aftermath, and Israel’s political and military struggle for independence raged overseas. “This year we have attempted to bring to our readers information about the new post-war developments in Jewish literature in Europe,” editor Abraham G. Duker highlighted in his preface to the 1947 – 1948 issue. “We have also discussed [...] the wisdom of more intensive coverage of different fields of Hebrew literature in different years in view of most fortunate cultural developments in Eretz Israel and the consequent large output of books, trends which we hope will continue uninterruptedly.”
This was not to be the case, as the following volume of Jewish Book Annual went to print in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence. “It is a source of deep regret that three articles on the Hebrew literary creativity in the State of Israel, that had been assigned to and accepted by outstanding Israeli personalities, have not been received as this book goes to press, undoubtedly due to the unsettled conditions there,” Grayzel continued in his introduction to Volume VII. “When these articles are received,” he promised, “the Council will find appropriate channels for their proper dissemination so that we can join in paying tribute to our brethren in Israel.”
Happily, however, the Annual’s dedication to its trilingual dialogue on American Jewish literature transitioned from determination and survival to a celebration of culture, heritage, and the arts as the Jewish American community flourished in a more peaceful world the next decade. “Yiddish lives in our Annual. Hebrew lives in our Annual. Jewish Art lives in our Annual. Books, books, books live in our Annual,” Ely E. Pilchik introduced Volume XIII (1955 – 1956). “As the fourth century begins for American Jewry, and the fourth or fifth millennium for the descendants of Jacob, Jews are writing in at least three languages—Hebrew, Yiddish and English. If there is writing there must be reading. From earliest times we Jews have hallowed history with דאס ווארט—הדבר—the word—oral and written. As long as we so hallow will our history be glowingly alive.”
Little did he know that one day it would be so literally glowingly alive off computer screens and even handheld devices displaying his own words in digital archives freely available and accessible to all.
Excerpted from The Hours Count: A Novel by Jillian Cantor.
On the night Ethel is supposed to die, the air is too heavy to breathe.The humidity clings to my skin, my face wet with sweat, or maybe tears. It is hard to tell the difference. To understand one thing from another anymore. It’s as if the world were ending the way I always imagined it would. And yet I’m still here. Still driving. Still breathing, somehow, despite the heavy air, despite what I have done. The sky is on the edge of dusk. No mushroom cloud. No bodies turned to dust.
I’m driving Ed’s Fleetmaster up Route 9, the road to Ossining, along the sweltering Hudson. There are a lot of cars, all headed the way I am, slowing me down. I push anxiously on the gas, wanting the miles to speed along, wanting to get there before it’s too late. I hope the car will make it, that I haven’t damaged anything that will cause it to stall now at the worst possible time.
I wish I could’ve left earlier, but I had to wait until I was able to take Ed’s car. I suppose you even might say I’ve stolen the car, but Ed and I are still married legally. And can a wife really steal a car from her own legal husband?
So much has already been stolen from me, from all of us. From
Ethel. And that’s why I’m driving now.
My stomach turns at the thought of what might happen to me when I tell the truth at last. And I glance in the rearview mirror at the backseat. For so long, I have taken David with me everywhere, and it takes me a moment to remember he’s not here. It’s just me in the car and David’s gone.
But Jake will be there, at Sing Sing, I remind myself. He has to be. And if I can just see him one last time, one more moment, then it will make everything else I am about to do, everything I have lost and am losing by doing this, all worth it.
I think now about the curve of Jake’s neck, the way it smelled of pipe smoke and pine trees, just the way the cabin on Esopus Creek smelled. I inhale, wanting him to be here, to be real and in front of me again. But instead my lungs fill with that thick air, the dank smell of the Hudson, a humid summer afternoon turned almost evening. A few fireflies begin to gather just outside my window, their bodies glowing, a little early. It’s not quite dark. Not yet the Sabbath. I’m almost there, so close, and I will the darkness to hold off. Just a little longer.
Up ahead, there are dozens of red taillights and I realize that traffic has come to a standstill. I stop and put my head out the window. Farther up the road, it looks like there are barricades set up. Police with flashlights, though I’m hoping FBI, too. I switch on the radio and listen anxiously, wanting so badly for there to be good news. A last-minute stay. A decision to halt things until after the
Sabbath has passed. More time.
I switch the stations, anxious for something. Anything. But all I get is music: Ella Fitzgerald singing “Guilty.” It feels like a cruel joke, and I switch again. At last I find news, but it’s not good. President Eisenhower has denied a stay of execution, saying Ethel and Julie have condemned tens of millions of people to death all around the world. No. Ethel and Julie are still set to die at eight p.m. An hour from now.
I switch the radio off, pull the car to the side of the road, and kill the engine. I take a cigarette from my purse and light it with shaking hands. I inhale the smoke and for a moment consider not getting out of the car but just waiting here in the line of traffic. But I know I can’t.
I push open my door and step out into the steamy air. I stomp out the cigarette with my worn heel. I stare at the back window and picture David there on the other side, staring back at me, his round brown eyes like the pennies he so loved to stack. “Come on now,” I would tell him if he were here. “We have to hurry if we’re going to find Dr. Jake.”
His mouth would twitch slightly at the mention of Jake’s name, and I’d wonder if maybe it might even be a little smile.
Jake’s here, I tell myself instead. All I have to do is find Jake.
And I shut the car door and begin running up the road.
Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 Jillian Cantor.
Christopher Noxon is the author of Plus One and a recent inductee into the Tribe, completing his conversion to Judaism this past August. He will be blogging about his experience all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
It’s right there in the first six letters of my name—the boy from Bethlehem, the Jewish carpenter, the King of Kings!
I may as well be called Jesus.
The truth is, religion was never much of anything in my family. My dad is descended from Canadian Quakers but never went to church in his life. He and my mom, a beatnik-feminist who later became Buddhist, named me not for the star of the New Testament but after Winnie the Pooh’s curly-haired plus one, Christopher Robin. (Fun fact: the real-life Christopher Robin wasn’t even Christian—he grew up to be, like my dad, an avowed atheist.)
My Jewish journey began twenty years ago when I met and fell in love with Jenji, a Beverly Hills comedy writer who proudly identified as Jewish—at least in the won’t-buy-a-German car-or-eat-ham-but-will-have-the-shrimp-if-it’s-fresh-and-chilled kind of way.
Early on in our marriage, I consented to her demand that we raise the children Jewish. Whatever doubts I had about the Almighty or gefilte fish, I figured our three kids would only benefit from a solid foundation in what I understood to be a foundational tradition of the Western civilized world. If all else failed, I figured it would give them something to rebel against besides their crazy goy dad.
And that was that; I was content to remain on the sidelines. At the synagogue day school where we sent the kids, when they talked about “interfaith families,” I proudly identified myself as the inter.
At various points, I considered converting. While we were dating, Jenji and I took an Intro to Judaism class at the University of Judaism—unfortunately, it had all the appeal and mystery of a court-mandated driver’s ed course. Also, every time I opened the Torah I’d land on a furious warning about God's wrath; or instructions on sacrificing animals or keeping slaves; or worst of all, a call to stone homosexuals or heretics or those who dare to work on the Sabbath.
I asked friends what they made of these passages and got more or less the same response: Relax! It's literature! Only really nutty Jews view the Torah as literal truth, and the story of Judaism is in large part the story of a never-ending argument over the texts.
Years went by, and I settled into what might be called Jewish adjacency. I was a flaming shaygetz in a world of Jews. A caretaking support goy.
As an unofficial, unaffiliated friend of the Tribe, I found a certain freedom. I couldn’t don the prayer shawl or offer an aliyah at my kids’ bar and bat mitzvah, but with a few exceptions I was welcomed to participate. It was kind of great, actually. Friends born into it dealt with complicated familial associations or pangs of guilt or embarrassment as they made peace with their Judaism. Every prayer offered or dreidel spun conjured complicated memories of overbearing mothers, horrible Hebrew schools, and anguish over Israel. Their practice of Judaism was wrapped up in thorny questions of identity and heritage.
I had none of that. I could approach Judaism unburdened by questions of whether doing this practice or not made me a “good” or “bad” Jew. I could “do” Judaism, enacting the spirit of the practice without worrying about the labels associated with it.
When people asked, I’d say I wasn’t Jewish but that I was “doing Jew.” In thinking about what that meant, I stumbled upon what felt like a core truth about myself, the faith and, ultimately, the God question I’d started with. At a study group one night I heard Rabbi Eddie Feinstein teach about the concept of God not as an omnipotent determinant force but as an ongoing action of creativity and caring. Like any great simple truth, this one—God as verb, not noun— got under my skin and seeped into my thinking.
The Torah was still mostly offputting, but I came to love the act of bumping up against it, pulling out strands that made sense and railing against interpretations that didn’t. It was all about action—living not judging, channeling not obeying, connecting not corralling.
This, of course, is a central tenet of Judaism; it’s a faith of deeds, not creeds.
It all started to make a lot more sense. After years and years of “doing Jewish” I started thinking seriously about being Jewish. I felt like I’d been living in a foreign country for most of my adult life with a green card—I could work here, but I didn’t have the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. I wanted in.
Christopher Noxon is the author of the novel Plus One, a romantic comedy about caretaking men and breadwinning women in contemporary Hollywood. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Details, and Salon. He feels weird writing about himself in the third person but is happy to speak to JCCs and loves working with the JBC.
Dara Horn is the author of four novels: In the Image (Norton 2002), The World to Come (Norton 2006), All Other Nights (Norton 2009) and A Guide for the Perplexed (Norton 2013), as well as the Kindle nonfiction bestseller The Rescuer (Tablet 2011). A Harvard PhD in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, she has taught these subjects as a visiting professor at Sarah Lawrence College, City University of New York and Harvard University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.
Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. He has written novels (Book of Numbers, Witz, A Heaven of Others, Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto), short fiction (Four New Messages), and nonfiction for Harper's, The New York Times, London Review of Books, Bookforum, and others. He lives in New York City.
This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:
- György Spiró on how Saint Thomas and the New York Postal Service inspired a Hungarian Jewish novel set in First Century Rome
- 30 Days, 30 Authors: Jewish writers join Jewish Book Council's 90th celebration of Jewish Book Month
- Register for Jewish Book Council's Annual Jewish Writers' Seminar!
- György Spiró introducestwo great writers of Central Europe
- Interview with Rebecca Dinerstein, author of The Sunlit Night
Plus, Tova shares the first novel that she fell in love with.
Tova Mirvis is the author of three novels, Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, Commentary, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio. She has been a Scholar in Residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, and Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.