The ProsenPeople

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 12, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:

  Find more of the latest reviews here.

West and Schwartz, Dreaming at the Movies

Friday, July 12, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Ilan Mochari wrote about The Who and Jewish summer camp and the autobiographical elements in his novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press). He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When it comes to 20th-century Jewish authors, it’s Bellow, Roth, and Salinger who generally grab headlines. But their immediate predecessors—Delmore Schwartz and Nathanael West—worked in an era that will always captivate me. The term “bygone time” gets tossed around a lot, but to read Schwartz and West is to truly step into a different America—the America of the 1930s—than the one that Bellow, Roth, and Salinger chronicled.

For one thing, World War II had not happened. For another, the television had not yet taken over as a standard domestic appliance. But the movies and radio were in full swing, forever altering the way we consume words, images, advertisements, and stories. Schwartz and West had to compete with these newfangled media. In one of my favorite passages from Miss Lonelyhearts, West, through the prism of that novel’s narrator, laments how the noun dreams has lost its aura in this new era:

“Although dreams were once powerful, they have been made puerile by the movies, radio and newspapers. Among many betrayals, this one is the worst” (39).

Almost as bad, for West’s narrator, is the way consumerism and vanity have encroached upon dreams as a once-sacred trope:

“Guitars, bright shawls, exotic foods, outlandish costumes—all these things were part of the business of dreams. He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust” (22).

There’s no way to prove that Schwartz had these passages in mind when he wrote his legendary story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” two years later. But if the title is merely an unwitting homage to Lonelyhearts, the thematic overlaps are too powerful to ignore. To wit: Schwartz’s entire story takes place not only in a movie theater, but also in a theater that is the setting of a dream the narrator is having.

The movie depicts the clumsy courtship of the narrator’s parents. The theatergoers are all along for the romantic ride, with the exception of the narrator, who disturbs the other patrons with his protestations: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds,” he shouts at the screen, after his father proposes to his mother. Naturally, the theatergoers wish he would just shut up and let them enjoy the film. They’ve paid good money to see it (thirty-five cents, in 1935).

In many ways, Schwartz and West set the stage for The Catcher In The Rye (1951), in which Holden Caulfield spends many a paragraph ridiculing the implausible idealism of mainstream American films. All of that—the march against phoniness—is generally credited to Salinger, and for good reason: His contrarian novel cracked the mainstream, giving vent to hypocrisies that most readers felt but never expressed. But let us remember that when it comes to the movies—and their corruption of dreams—West and Schwartz were there first.

Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. Read more about Ilan here.

July 2013 Jewish Book Council Staff Picks

Thursday, July 11, 2013 | Permalink
What we're reading this month:

Carolyn: The Art Forger (B.A. Shapiro) | Naomi: Herzog (Saul Bellow)
Mimi: The Invisible Bridge (Julie Orringer) | Emma: Jerusalem (Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi)
Carol: The Golem and the Jinni (Helene Wecker) | Miri: May We Be Forgiven (A.M. Homes)

A Word on Who I Am

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Mochari wrote about the autobiographical elements in his novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A few months ago I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am. I can’t say I was surprised to read the following:

“We shared our house with the Cass family, who lived upstairs and, like many of my parents’ closest friends, were Jewish. I remember noisy, joyous Passovers with a lot of Gefilte fish, chopped liver and the aroma of slow-roasting brisket” (11).

Why was I not surprised? As a lifelong fan of The Who, I’ve often felt there was something ineffably Jewish in their themes and melodies. I’m thinking in particular of the devotional litany from Tommy:

“Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat / Following you, I climb the mountain / I get excitement at your feet / Right behind you, I see the millions / On you, I see the glory / From you, I get opinions / From you, I get the story.”

In the way it builds, in the way it deifies, in the way it mounts and repeats, it has always reminded me of Ein Keloheinu and Adon Olam.

And here’s my confession: I like singing this part of Tommy. A lot. As in, every day. As if it’s a prayer I can’t live without. It owns me. Even though I’m a secular cat. Even though I’d hesitate to call myself spiritual.

I have often wondered why Tommy has such a grip on me. My best guess? I think it stems from my six summers at B’nai B’rith Perlman Camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania.

BBPC was a place where you could get in serious trouble—you’d get “docked” from canteen or a team sport, and you’d get a dozen “dead arms” from your counselor—if you didn’t sing with the proper levels of respect and passion. It didn’t matter what the song was. It might be the “Birkat Hamazon”; it might be “The Circle Game”; it might be your color war team’s anthem.

This mild form of cultural hazing left a mark. To this day, I get annoyed at Passover when not everyone is pulling his weight on “Echad Mi Yodea.” And I get annoyed at music shows when the lead vocalist isn’t “bringing it” with everything he has.

And it all has to do with the belief—cultivated at BBPC—that singing is not to be done in a half-assed manner. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Passover table or a stadium concert. Sing it like you mean it, or don’t sing at all.

That last sentence is The Who in general, and Tommy in particular.

And so here I am, more than 20 years past my summer camp days. I’m an adult who almost never goes to temple. For all intents and purposes, I’m an atheist. But when I sing songs from Tommy, I feel like I’m regaining a precious piece of my childhood puzzle. It might not be a piece that belongs, strictly speaking, to the Jewish tradition; but it belongs to a lesson that I first learned in a Jewish setting. It is a lesson about passion, and a lesson about effort. And it is a lesson that has stayed with me, ever since.

Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. Read more about Ilan here.

Book Cover of the Week: La Famille Middlestein

Wednesday, July 10, 2013 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A little foreign edition book cover love today. Presenting the French cover of Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins:

Find book club discussion questions for The Middlsteins and Jami's blog posts for the Visiting Scribe here.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

10 Summer Reads For Jewish Teens

Tuesday, July 09, 2013 | Permalink

Looking for books to send your kids at camp this summer? Try these recommendations from our teen intern, Amalia!





Hilarious and Horrifying: Popular Culture Reveals the 1950s

Tuesday, July 09, 2013 | Permalink
The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

This week, Caroline Leavitt, the author of Is This Tomorrow (Algonquin, 2013) is kicking off the series. To "host" Caroline at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

When I was researching my 1950s novel Is This Tomorrow (Algonquin Books), I was determined to get the flavor of the times right. I interviewed people, and read books. But nothing surprised, delighted or helped me as much as vintage memorabilia. 

Is This Tomorrow, set in the white-picket paradise of suburbia, reveals the tarnish of the times. People were terrified about Communist infiltration, and they mistrusted anyone who seemed different. And just to make sure you knew who your enemies really were, the fifties served up instructive brochures on how to spot them.  Even the esteemed Look Magazine pointed a journalistic finger at the most likely suspects: your neighbors.  Did the woman next door read a lot of books? Well, then, she was a Communist. Did the guy across the street douse his salad with Russian dressing?  Communist. Did he tell jokes you didn’t understand? He was speaking in code.  

But as terrified as people were of the Red Menace, there was also a spirit of American “can do.” One brochure, How To Survive a Nuclear Attack advised housewives to keep a tidy home because clutter attracted radiation. (Who knew?) If you were unlucky enough to be caught outside in an attack, safety was assured as long as you used your welcome mat to wipe the radioactivity from your shoes.  

The 50s were all about the housewife, and that meant making memorable meals. My main character, Ava Lark, a divorced Jewish mother, crosses a line when she forges a pie-baking career for herself, something women just didn’t do back then. While researching the food she’d be familiar with, I discovered cookbooks with names like Let’s Jump it Up With Jell-o and Making Meals Men Love. The food advice was so stunningly wrong! You had to boil vegetables for 45 minutes, and jolt your kids with sugar because it would give them energy. 1950s housewives needed to make meals that were showstoppers, because a. what else were they doing all day? and b. they knew the way to keeping their husband’s focus on them, rather than on a perky office secretary, was through his stomach. My favorite recipe was something called a meatloaf train from an old Lea and Perrins cookbook. You shaped the meat into a train, adding little meatloaf cabooses attached with a bit of string. You cut up carrots for wheels, skinny strips of celery to make windows, but the pièce de résistance were the hard peas that made up the faces and bodies of the passengers! 

All the 50s memorabilia I devoured made me aware of how different the times were, but also, how uncomfortably similar. Substitute the word “Muslim” or “terrorist” for “Communist “and you have an idea of the anxiety level. Think about a 1950s video where high school girls argued that studying home economics was more important than learning science and then ponder today’s literary term “women’s fiction,” which intimates that only women read it, which sadly seems to lessen its impact.  It all makes me wonder. What will 2050 writers think about 2013, when they comb through our popular culture? 

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow. Learn more about Caroline at

Introducing...The Postscript

Monday, July 08, 2013 | Permalink
Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

The Postscript, JBC's newest blog series, is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book, a bit of bonus book club material from Jewish Book Council authors. We're inviting authors to share a little something extra; maybe it's some background information, historical or other relevant context, or maybe some interesting finds from their research, some personal information, a character tree or early outline, or a window into their writing. Come see what they have to say!

The series was created to give book clubs a boost, a bump up to the regular discussion of a book (though it's great for all readers!).  This is the bonus feature or the director's author's cut to add depth to the conversation. 

Whatever the author chooses to share, enjoy The Postscript's window into the heart and soul of the story!

Not All Autobiographical Elements Are Created Equal

Monday, July 08, 2013 | Permalink
Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. He will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

I get this question all the time: How autobiographical is your novel?

The book’s style, setting, and protagonist invite the question: It’s a first-person coming-of-age debut. It takes place largely in New York and Boston, where I’ve spent most of my life. And the main character—the Zinsky of the title—is my age.

But my honest answer is this: “The life I’ve lived is different from the tale I spin about a fictional character named Zinsky. But I’ve used plenty of ammunition from my life to create Zinsky and his story.”

The thing is—there’s heavy ammunition, and there’s light ammunition.

In the category of heavy ammo, I’d list the following:

  • My parents separated when I was six. Same thing happens to Zinsky.
  • My mother was an English teacher. That, too, is the profession of Zinsky’s mother.
  • I’m a zealot of all things related to literature and football. So is Zinsky.

And yet, I never quite feel like the heavy ammo provides the entire picture. The book contains dozens of minor elements—in the form of small descriptions, single scenes, and turns of phrase—that are also autobiographical. This is what I call “light ammo.”

For example: There’s a wedding scene in Chapter 21, in which two characters—bored by the ceremonies—play a game of prayerbook baseball. Here’s how it works: Zinsky whispers a page number to Jimmy Calipari, the character sitting next to him. Jimmy attempts to open his prayerbook to exactly that page. If he succeeds, he’s hit a home run. If he gets within five pages, it’s a triple. Within 10, a double. Within 15, a single. Beyond 15, it’s an out. So the game begins, with the same general rules—three outs to a half-inning—as regular baseball.

A friend taught me this game in seventh grade. We were sitting next to each other during the bar mitzvah ceremony of another friend. We were bored out of our skulls. And this was 1987, so you couldn’t just take out a smartphone.

So you see, prayerbook baseball’s appearance in Zinsky is an autobiographical element. It’s not the heavy stuff of location, vocation, or family; but any way you slice it, it’s material from my life that I mined to create a fictional scene.

The point is, it’s easy to think of a novel’s autobiographical elements in terms of big-picture similarities between the author’s life and the life of his or her main character.

But just as often, it’s the small stuff.

Ilan Mochari's novel, Zinsky the Obscure (Fomite Press), is now available. He is Chief Writer for The Build Network and a contributor to Cognoscenti, the online magazine for Boston's NPR News Station. Read more about Ilan here.

10 Jewish Books for July 4th

Wednesday, July 03, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Amalia Kaufman

Celebrate July 4th with these titles focused on American Jewish life:


1. Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality (Martha C. Nussbaum)
2. A Land of Big Dreamers: Voices of Courage in America (Neil Waldman)
3. American Jewish History: A JPS Guide (Norman H. Finkelstein)
4. America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story (Bruce Feiler)
5. A Timeless People: Photo Album of American Jewish Life (Saul H. Landa)
6. American Presidents, Religion and Israel (Paul Charles Merkley
7. American Jewry’s Comfort Level: Present and Future (Manfred Gerstenfeld and Steven Bayme, eds.)
8. From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America (Michael Grunberger, ed.)
9. Henry Ford’s War on Jews and the Legal Battle Against Hate Speech (Victoria Saker Woeste)
10. Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking our Declaration of Independence (Alan Dershowitz)