The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: In Sunlight and in Shadow

Thursday, May 24, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Pubbing in October from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

New York in 1947 glows with post-war energy. Harry Copeland, an elite paratrooper who fought behind enemy lines in Europe, returns home to run the family business. In a single, magical encounter on the Staten Island ferry, the young singer and heiress Catherine Thomas Hale falls for him in an instant, too late to prevent her engagement to a much older man. Harry and Catherine pursue one another in a romance played out in postwar America's Broadway theaters, Long Island mansions, the offices of financiers, and the haunts of gangsters. Catherine's choice of Harry over her long-time fiancé endangers Harry’s livelihood and eventually threatens his life.

The Magic of Summer Camp

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, National Jewish Book Award winner Jonathan Krasner discussed his use of the word "boys" in "Benderly boys." He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When my ten year old daughter heads to sleep-away camp this summer she will follow a family tradition that began the summer after World War II. Fearing an outbreak of polio in New York City, my grandparents shipped my father off to Massad, a Hebrew-speaking camp in the Poconos. He was only five years old. My grandmother kept the postcards he mailed home. My dad was just learning to print and his penmanship was atrocious. Still, they weren’t difficult to decipher, and all were virtually identical: “I don’t like it here,” his postcards wailed. “Take me home!”

As a former camp counselor I know that dad’s homesickness was hardly anomalous. But by-and-large, his peers who attended Jewish overnight camps have very fond memories of their summers. Dr. Josh Perelman, the deputy Director of Programming and Museum Historian at the National Museum of American Jewish History recently told me that the section of the museum’s permanent exhibit dedicated to summer camping is easily one of the biggest draws. A section of the museum's website is devoted to Jewish summer camps and guests are invited to upload their own camp photos and share memories.

When I was researching the origins of Jewish culture camping for The Benderly Boys I was struck by the central role that overnight camps played in the Jewish identity formation of my informants. Decades after the closure of Cejwin Camps, the oldest Jewish culture camp, hundreds of alumni remain connected through an online discussion group and social media. A Camp Massad Facebook group has almost 600 participants. Another venerable overnight camp, Modin, which still thrives in Belgrade, Maine, recently held a 90th anniversary reunion gala at a swanky Manhattan venue with over 500 former campers in attendance. And a 1998 reunion of the oldest Yiddish-speaking camp, Boiberik, drew 450 alums and merited an article in the New York Times.

I suppose my father’s memories of camp were not all bad. The summer I turned ten, he and my mom signed me up for a month at Camp Massad. I spent three glorious seasons at Massad Bet and would have returned. But dwindling enrollment compelled the camp to close, in 1979, the same year that the Boiberik campgrounds, in Rhinebeck, New York, was sold to a meditation center. Cejwin, which paved the way for camps like Massad, was shuttered a little over a decade later, in 1991.

Various reasons have been given for these camps’ decline. My guess is that the phenomenon can largely be explained by their failure to keep pace with the rapid socio-economic advancement of the Jewish community. As much as I loved Massad, the truth is that the camp facilities were terribly outdated by the 1970s. I doubt that they were ever in mint condition. But whereas an earlier generation was willing to write off overgrown playing fields, dilapidated communal shower houses and leeches in the lake as symptomatic of the camp’s rugged charms, such blemishes could not be overlooked by middle class kids thoroughly acclimated to the creature comforts of suburbia. Certainly not when there were other well-manicured, flashier alternatives competing for the same clientele.

Moreover, the ideological core of these camps -- their devotion to Zionism, Hebrew or Yiddish language and culture -- did not tug as deeply at the heartstrings of the third generation. By and large, their parents left their immigrant ideologies in Brownsville and Roxbury when they moved to Great Neck and Newton.

My hypothesis is borne out by the opposing fates of Cejwin and Modin. Established within a few years of one another (1919 and 1922, respectively) and sharing some of the same founders, the former catered to a working class clientele and placed Jewish culture front and center, while the latter attracted the children of professionals and businessmen, enticing them with bourgeois activities like horseback riding and (later) waterskiing. In the 1940s and 50s, Cejwin was teeming with campers and seemed to be in permanent expansion mode. But in the long run, Modin’s formula had greater longevity. The same summer that Cejwin closed, the current owners of Modin relocated their high end camp to a first class facility on the picturesque Belgrade Lakes with a state-of-the-art fitness center and recreation pavilion. The 2011 brochure features panoramic views and happy children of privilege, sailing, windsurfing, white water rafting and wall climbing.

Even Orthodox Judaism had gone bourgeois by the 1970s. In the 1980s I worked at Camp Raleigh, the "sports camp in a Torah environment." Raleigh boasted private showers in each bunk, a gleaming swimming pool, and a pastry chef who's creations could rival anything one might find at the nearby Grossinger's resort hotel. A colleague and fellow member of the Massad Diaspora mockingly referred to Raleigh as “Camp Fress,” from the Yiddish word for pigging out. But camps like Raleigh and Seneca Lake embodied the American Jewish zeitgeist of the late twentieth century, the Age of Fress.

Twenty years later, there is a new trend in Jewish camping: the boutique or niche camp. In 2010, the Foundation for Jewish Camp created a camp incubator that facilitated the launching of five non-profit specialty camps, with names like Adamah Adventures and 92Y Passport NYC. The incubator experiment was so successful that plans for a second incubator are well underway. According to the American Camp Association, the Jewish interest in specialty camps mirrors a larger trend in American camping. Rabbi Eve Rudin, a veteran Reform Jewish camp leader and former Director of the Department of Camp Excellence and Advancement at the Foundation for Jewish Camp is positively bullish on the new specialty camps: “Before specialty camps, young people had to chose between their area of interest and their Jewish interests. Too often, they chose to opt out of the Jewish community in order the gain the skills and mentoring they desired. In these new settings, young people can lead Jewish lives, have Jewish experiences and still receive the sophisticated training and opportunities in their areas of interest.”

Individual Jewish summer camps may come and go and the trappings and programs of these camps may adapt to changing times. But the idea of Jewish camping is as fresh and as full of promise for Jewish identity building and personal growth today as it was when the first Jewish culture camps were founded almost a century ago. My daughter will be attending one of the new specialty camps, Eden Village, a religiously pluralistic camp in Putnam Valley, New York, focusing on Jewish environmentalism and organic farming. Like her counterparts twenty, fifty and ninety years ago, she is breathlessly counting the days until summer.

Jonathan B. Krasner is the author of the National Jewish Book Award winning title The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education. Krasner was also a finalist for the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.

A Foodie on Tour

Wednesday, May 23, 2012 | Permalink

Throughout the past year, Mary Glickman has traveled around the country to discuss her first two novels, Home in the Morning and One More RiverBelow, she writes about her experiences as a foodie on a book tour. Mary will be touring the country once again for the Jewish Book Network's 2012-2013 season on her second novel, One More River. For more information about the Jewish Book Network, please visit here.

People ask me, now that I’ve completed a year’s worth of traipsing about doing book tours, what I’ve gained from the experience. First there are the obvious perks of having one's work validated at last: being taken seriously, the great gift of feedback from readers which will inform my future work, and hopefully, a growing audience. I’ve made a friend or two who I hope will be around the rest of my life. But on the most personal level, I have to say the most striking effects are: 1) the stress of post 9/11 air travel has thinned my hair, and 2) my generous hosts have made sure I piled on the pounds. So you might say the two most significant effects of touring have been going bald and getting fat. 

And it’s been worth every pound. 

Jewish women like to feed you and Jews like to eat, so there’s a natural process going on here. And my hostesses did our people proud. There was the New Orleans Booklover’s Luncheon that was tastier than a wedding supper. The menu: spring salad with white basalmic vinegarette, seared drum fillet with sugar cane beurre blanc sauce, wild mushroom orzo with red pepper confetti, and crisp haricots verts. When I told my hostess I’d never had such an elegant repast at such an event, she said: “Well, of course! This is New Orleans, darlin’!” 

I enjoyed lunches at south Florida country clubs where the menus provided healthy, low-fat options but where the homemade seeded flatbreads took a look at any resolve I’d built up to “go easy” and laughed in my hungry face. Loudly. I visited Hartford, Connecticut, during Passover. We had a catered dinner that was truly one of the best I had all tour: succulent salmon and roast vegetables in a gingery sauce that I can still taste. They even sent me back to my hotel with a pesadik coffee cake and fruit to enjoy for breakfast before my flight home. It didn’t last through Jay Leno. 

In Boston, my old hometown, I was taken by happy accident to a favorite restaurant I had missed since my move to the South. I ordered dinner but instead of taking half home as I used to do, I ate it all. (There was no fridge in my room, after all. What good Jew wastes food?) In Baltimore, I enjoyed a fabulous salmon and risotto dinner paired with rosé, personally prepared for me by a Jewish fox-hunting aficionado in an equestrian estate so palatial it shall ever be known to my intimates as “little Downton Abbey.” But damn her crystal dishes of chocolate-covered coffee beans in the elegant lounge where I presented my work. 

So here I am, ten pounds later, hitting the gym, snarling at Brie, and getting ready for this year’s Jewish Book Network auditions. This year I’m a 2011 National Jewish Book Award Finalist for One More River, so I’m hoping for a new tour; let me say Baruch ha-Shem on that one. And if it is His will, I intend to be in fighting trim next fall. When all those kitchens and hostesses urge me to “eat, eat!”, I’ll just smile and say, “bring it on!”

As for the hair, I’m thinking extensions.

Read (and watch) more about Mary Glickman at Open Road Media.

What's in a Name?

Monday, May 21, 2012 | Permalink
Jonathan B. Krasner is the author of the National Jewish Book Award winning title The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education. Krasner was also a finalist for the 2012 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. 

One of the greatest dilemmas I faced while writing The Benderly Boys & American Jewish Education was how to refer to the group of Jewish educators who were mentored by New York Bureau of Jewish Education director Samson Benderly. At first glance the answer seemed deceptively simple. Benderly referred to his protégés as my "boys," and the moniker "Benderly boys" was widely used both by members of the group and their colleagues in the field. 

And yet, the appellation is problematic. For one thing, in today's world the term "boy" or "girl" when used in reference to a grownup has taken on a pejorative, or at the very least, a paternalistic connotation. This usage has largely become anachronistic, a relic of the "Mad Men" and "Driving Miss Daisy" era. 

More fundamentally, the term "Benderly boys" is misleading. Although the majority of Benderly's disciples were men, the group also included a number of women. A few attained leadership positions in schools, community centers, camps and other organizations. And while most voluntarily "retired" after marriage or the birth of their children, a few became career women long before the feminist revolution. Libbie Suchoff Berkson, for example, directed Camp Modin, in Canaan, Maine, while Elsie Simonofsky Chomsky served for many years as the principal of Gratz College's well regarded Hebrew teacher's program, the School of Observation and Practice. Still other women gave up leadership positions but continued to wield influence in the field. Rebecca Aaronson Brickner, who served as Benderly's veritable right hand during his early years at the New York Bureau, officially left education in 1919 when she married Rabbi Barnett Brickner. But her influence continued to be felt in the religious school of Cleveland's Euclid Avenue Temple (later called the Fairmount Temple), where her husband spent much of his rabbinical career. Likewise, Mamie Goldsmith Gamoran and Elma Ehrlich Levinger published dozens of religious school textbooks, storybooks and other educational materials years after they supposedly embraced domestic life. 

Benderly, apparently, did not hesitate to apply the 'Benderly boy' appellation to his female disciples. In my book, I discuss the implications of this curious usage. Benderly reflexively used gender as a marker for his closest disciples. If you fulfilled his criteria, which included studying at Columbia Teachers College, assuming administrative responsibilities at the Bureau or one of its affiliated schools, and attending his daily, early morning schmooze sessions, you were considered one of the boys, regardless of your anatomical make-up. Contemporary scholars, however, have been less sanguine about using the term "Benderly boys," with some preferring gender neutral terms like "group" or "bunch." 

The term "Bureau bunch" was adopted in the 1910s by the larger team of workers at the New York Bureau, while the inner circle of disciples referred to themselves as Chayil , an acronym for the Hebrew phrase "education is our national foundation," and a word meaning valor or virtue. While I intersperse the term "Benderly group" throughout the book for the sake of variety, I will admit to finding neither "Bureau bunch" nor Chayil compelling. The latter seemed obscure and, in any event, was confined in the day to an exclusive group of insiders. I wished to cast a wider net. The latter, meanwhile, was irredeemably hokey-sounding, particularly in the ear of one who was raised on a seemingly continuous loop of Brady Bunch reruns. 

In the end, I decided to stick with "Benderly boys," despite its drawbacks, and not merely due to its alliterative appeal. For me, the use of the appellation by Samson Benderly and its embrace by his disciples was decisive. By retaining the term "Benderly boys" I felt that I was at once remaining true to history while also honoring the memories of these men and women. But I did not entirely give up on the desire to problematize the designation. That is why I was thrilled to come across a crisp photograph of Benderly walking arm in arm with three of his closest disciples, including Libbie Berkson, while working at the American Jewish Archives. I knew immediately that it needed to adorn the book's cover. This photo of Libbie, surrounded by men, but clearly accepted as a full member of the Benderly team, juxtaposed with the book's title, is purposely discordant and meant to induce perplexity. Here was a case where a picture could truly speak louder than words. 

Here is hoping that the publication of The Benderly Boys (along with Carol Ingall's 2010 volume, The Women Who Reconstructed American Jewish Education) helps to encourage a rediscovery of Benderly's "girls."

Jonathan B. Krasner will be blogging here all week.

Tisha B’Av and the Olympic Games

Friday, May 18, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Dvora Meyers wrote about being an Orthodox Jewish gymnast and the designer of her book cover. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

What happens when the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, the Ninth of Av, which memorializes the destruction of King Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, coincides with you learning about the U.S. women’s victory at the 1996 Olympics, arguably the happiest gymnastics moment in my twenty-year relationship with the sport? Should I cry for the Temple? Or flip for the Magnificent Seven?

Unfortunately, the rabbis never bothered with these (and other) questions in their responsa. I was forced to answer them on my own (I flipped and then felt guilty about it, thus covering both my Jewish and gymnastics bases).

The text above is a snippet from the introduction to Heresy on the High Beam. In it, I allude to a story that I never ended up writing out (though I did tell it at my Leotard Optional book launch party, which was just like a “black tie” event except with a lot more spandex). Since I didn’t include the anecdote in any of the essays, I’m giving it away for free here.

During the summer of 1996, I was at sleepaway camp in upstate New York. This camp, a place I attended for nine summers, had strict rules about correspondence — letters only. You weren’t allowed to receive care packages nor were you allowed to make or take phone calls from your parents. This was only feasible in a pre-cellphone, pre-internet age. I know that I’m dating myself here but I don’t mind. I’ll even do the math for you — I’m 29. (Can someone tell me how it works at camps nowadays? Do kids check in on Foursquare when they arrive at the dining hall? And what does the mayor of the mess get? An extra cup of bug juice?)

Anyway, back then I was 13 and was quite sad to be missing the broadcast of the Summer Olympics from Atlanta. The 1996 Olympic Team was my Dream Team, comprised of athletes I had followed ever since I started doing gymnastics at age 8, including Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Kerri Strug. I demanded regular letter updates from my mother back in Brooklyn to know what was going on in the gymnastics competition. She also sent me information about the platform diving since it was similar enough to gymnastics to merit my attention.

During the waning hours of the Ninth of Av, which for Jews is the saddest day on the calendar because it is when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, I was summoned to the camp office. Weak from fasting, I trudged over. “You’ve got a phone call,” I was told. “It’s your mother. She said she needs to talk to you about your scoliosis.”

I took the phone, utterly confused. Though my scoliosis had already been diagnosed, my mother and I were both under the impression that it was minor. (In a few months, however, we’d discover that it was severe and would require spinal fusion surgery. But I digress.) Why would she be calling me about that, I wondered.

“Mom?” I said.

“They won!” my mother practically shouted into the phone.


“The Americans! They won the gold medal!” she yelled.

In the background, I could hear my older sister add her two cents. “Tell her about Kerri Strug on the vault!”

This, as many of you probably recall, was the famous vault on a sprained ankle that the squeaky-voiced (and Jewish) Strug did to the bellowing chants of “You can do it!” from her Romanian coach, Bela Karolyi. She vaulted, stuck it and then had to be carried off the podium, helping clinch the first ever team gold medal for the U.S. (Actually, it turned out that they didn’t need her score after all of the numbers were crunched. They would’ve defeated the Russians even if they needed to count a fall from Dominique Moceanu. But forget I mentioned that. Math ruins stories.)

“I wanted to tell you myself,” my mom said, explaining her deception in getting me to the phone, which I obviously couldn’t openly signal in any way since a camp administrator was watching me carefully. I thanked her tonelessly and hung up.

There was still an hour left to the fast and I had been taught at camp that I should feel sad because the Temple was still burning, at least in a historical sense, and would be for several hours, even after we’d been given the OK to eat.

But as I walked along the path back to my bunk, I wasn’t remotely sad. I was happy, jubilant even. My earlier lethargy had been replaced by joy. I started to skip. Then I stopped. Then I started again. I couldn’t help it. My gymnastics idols had won the gold!

I tried a few more times to rein my feelings in and feel sad for something that happened over two thousand years prior but I couldn’t, not when something so wonderful happened less than 24 hours earlier. And I was so touched that my mother, who used to complain endlessly about driving me to and from gymnastics practice, had gone so far as to lie to tell me about the gold medal as soon as possible.That, I thought, is what family is all about.

And, two days later, the entire newspaper arrived in the mail.

Dvora Meyers has written for The New York Times, Deadspin, and Tablet. She was never allowed to compete professionally, but she is the recipient of a gold medal for gymnastics obsessiveness. Her new book, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, is out now.

New Reviews

Friday, May 18, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


It Takes Two

Thursday, May 17, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dvora Meyers wrote about being an Orthodox Jewish gymnast. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

As a writer, I’ve paid scant attention to the images that accompany my work. I’m usually too preoccupied with the phrasing and timing of jokes to fret over the all-important. That’s why one of my websites looks like this. (I hope you didn’t just die of purple.)

I’m not at all trying to downplay the importance of art in storytelling. I’m simply admitting to my own deficit in this department. And I would’ve probably gone on not caring about the visual component to my work had it not been for Margarita Korol, the urban pop artist that who created the vibrant cover to my new book, Heresy on the High Beam.

Allow me to backtrack for a moment. I met Margarita while I was an intern at Tablet, where she creates illustrations that accompany many of the articles. Almost right away, I decided I liked her when I realized she wore earrings as big as mine. Yes, a big pair of hoops is all it takes to secure my friendship.

After my internship was over we met up for coffee at my behest. I had an idea I wanted to discuss with her and needed her visual expertise. I had just been called “The Anti-Girlfriend” by a guy, a former flame, to which I responded, “Because just like the antichrist, I’m Jewish and I have curly hair?” Next, I did exactly what anyone in my shoes would’ve done—bought the domain and resolved to create a website by the same name.

Well, you might be wondering, what’s art got to do with it? I was wondering the same thing myself. For some reason, the notion that this site should have a strong visual storytelling component got stuck in my head. It might’ve had something to do with all the graphic novels I was reading at the time.

Thankfully, Margarita was game and we started working on dating comics for the site. I would send her dialogue sets and she would return with comics that far exceeded anything I had imagined when I jotted my thoughts down. She didn’t merely illustrate—she improved the stories with her visuals and sometimes edited my words for the better.

Plus, the collaboration was fun. As a freelance writer, you spend so much time working alone with little input from others that it was wonderful to pool my ideas with another creative person who possesses similar sensibilities.

Obviously, Margarita was the natural choice to create the cover for my essay collection. When asked what went into creating the vibrant image that introduced the text, she responded, “Heresy on the High Beam channeled some of my favorite things: a strong female lead, ethnic struggle, and a Lisa Frank palette.”

She forgot to mention big earrings. I guess that’ll have to wait until our next collaboration.

Dvora Meyers has written for The New York Times, Deadspin, and Tablet. She was never allowed to compete professionally, but she is the recipient of a gold medal for gymnastics obsessiveness. Her new book, Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess, is out now.

JBC Bookshelf: From B(ible) to Z(oo)

Thursday, May 17, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBC-land is buzzing from all of the new authors and books coming out this year. We have over 250 authors signed up to tour through the Jewish Book Network, which means our offices are jammed with books we're eager to read (Network authors--can't wait to meet you in June!).  The full-list of authors will be made public in August, but in the meantime look for the Jewish Book Network badge when browsing through our new reviews.  On another note, in the coming weeks be on the lookout for an announcement about a new book club initiative launching in August. We're really excited about it and think you will be too. 

Finally, with Shavuot around the corner, it's a good time to check out our Shavuot reading list. Find it here. Now, onto the shelf...

The Guttenberg Bible: A Memoir, Steve Guttenberg (May 2012, Thomas Dunne Books)
You had us at Three Men and a Baby...

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940, Stephen Brown and Richard R. Brettell (May 2012, Yale University Press)
New Yorkers: Check out The Jewish Museum's Edouard Vuillard exhibition running from May 4-September 23

Doreen Carvajal's search to recover her Catholic family's hidden Sephardic roots 

The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength, Daniel Gordis (August 2012, Wiley)
Read reviews of Daniel Gordis's books on the JBC website

One Last Thing Before I Go, Jonathan Tropper (August 2012, Dutton)
Our Book Cover of the Week this week

Zoo Time: A Novel, Howard Jacobson (October 2012, Bloomsbury USA)
Read reviews of Howard Jacobson's books on the JBC website

Book Cover of the Week: One Last Thing Before I Go

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

You may remember Jonathan Tropper from his best-selling novel This is Where I Leave You (or maybe one of his other fine books).  Well, lucky for you (and us) his newest novel, One Last Thing Before I Go, will be published by Dutton in August. Oh, and look out for the movie version, as well. 

May Jewish Book Carnival

Tuesday, May 15, 2012 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is pleased to be this month's Jewish Book Carnival host. The series, which is about to celebrate its 2-year anniversary, is a monthly event where book bloggers who promote Jewish literature come together to share some of their best content from the past month. Take a look at the below links, read the great articles, reviews, and interviews, and feel free to join the conversation by commenting on the posts. 

We'll kick this one off with a few May reading lists on our site, which you can find here.

Leora Wenger shares her Holocaust reading list in honor of Yom HaShoah (find JBC's list here).

On My Machberet, Erika Dreifus reflects on the late Anthony Shadid's memoir, House of Stone.

Listen to Heidi Estrin's podcast interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, over at The Book of Life.

Jonathan Kirsch reviews Benjamin Taylor's Naples Declared in The Jewish Journal.

Jean Naggar, author of the memoir Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt, shares her thoughts on the art of the memoir with AJL's People of the Books.

Over at The Whole Megillah, Barbara Krasner reviews the new picture book Jean Laffite, The Pirate Who Saved America and interviews Ellen Cassedy, author of We Are Here.

The Hebrew Union College’s Libraries got a rare peek at everyday life in the Holocaust era ghettos with the donation of Lodz Ghetto money (and the cataloger got a dose of realia).

Finally, find links to JBC's reviews of titles mentioned in this month's Jewish Book Carnival posts below: