The ProsenPeople

A Rabbi’s Tale

Wednesday, February 20, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jay Neugeboren wrote about the art of silence. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some years ago, when I was president of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I wrote a short story I set in my synagogue. Here, Chagall-like, are the story’s opening lines:

When the telephone rang, shortly after three a.m. on a cold, early November morning—Officer Ed Sedowski calling to say that a lost Torah had been found wandering around the local shopping mall—Rabbi Saul Gewirtz was fast asleep on his living room couch, having taken himself there some two hours before, following a fight with his wife Pauline. 

I had a delightful time conjuring up an imaginary rabbi’s life—I rewrote the story several times, published it in a good literary quarterly, and several years later the story became the title story of my third collection, News from the New American Diaspora and Other Tales of Exile. The stories I gathered for this collection spanned most of the twentieth century of Jewish-American life, and in 2005, at the time of the book’s publication, I returned to Northampton to give a reading at the synagogue. (A wandering Jew myself, after 30 years of exile in New England, I had, in 1999, left Northampton and returned to my home town of New York City.)

But many years before this, when the story was a manuscript, I had shown it to our B’nai Israel rabbi, Philip Graubart, himself a marvelous novelist and short story writer. Philip and I were friends, and I asked him to take a look at it, especially because in the story I had detailed a day in Rabbi Saul Gewirtz’s life. In that single day, Rabbi Gewirtz is attacked by a man with AIDS, who spits on the rescued Torah, and accuses the rabbi of being a heartless unforgiving God and smug Jewish doctor rolled into one; he is sexually assaulted and cursed by a female congregant with whom he had once had an affair; he is harangued by a Russian Jewish emigré whose children despise him, and whose wife has left him, and who, weeping away, asks the rabbi why God plays jokes with honest men.

They came and they went: a lesbian couple whose adopted daughter, not yet a year old, was afflicted with leukemia; an Israeli man of seventy-eight whose divorced wife was dying in Israel and who wanted to go there and ask her forgiveness, but was terrified of flying and fearful that his ex-wife would die before he arrived; a fifty-year-old stockbroker, whose father, eighty-three years old and a survivor of Buchenwald, had Alzheimer’s, was perpetually incontinent, refused to wear diapers or to live in a nursing home, and so was sitting day and night in his own piss and shit in the son’s home; a brother and sister, fourteen and fifteen years old, who, victims of a joint custody arrangement in which they stayed in a house that their mother and father took turns visiting, had begun having sex with one another . . .

And on and on it went.

Rabbi Graubart called me a few days later, and suggested we have lunch together. I was nervous—worried he had taken the story personally, and had been offended—but when, at lunch, I asked him what he thought of the story, he said he loved it. When I asked him what he thought of the rabbi’s day, and of the people who came and went from the rabbi’s study, he smiled.

“It seemed like a typical day in my life,” he said.

And then he laughed.

Jay's newest book, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, will be published in March. Visit Jay's official website here.

The Art of Silence

Monday, February 18, 2013 | Permalink
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 20 books, including two prize winning novels, two prize-winning non-fiction books, and four collections of award-winning stories. His most recent books are The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company (March 2013) and The Other Side of the World (December 2012). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Although my novel, The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, is set in the silent film era—it begins in 1915, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, where a a Jewish family that makes one and two reel (silent) films is making a new film on a frozen lake—its origins may lie in the spoken word. When friends ask how and why I came to write a novel about the silent film era, the first answer that comes to mind is that the novel is inspired not by my love of film, but by my childhood love of listening to stories on the radio.

During my years in high school, in Brooklyn in the early fifties, the New York City Board of Education’s radio station, WNYE-FM, regularly broadcast radio programs into elementary, junior high, and high school classrooms. And during those years I was a child/teenage actor at the radio station. I played some wonderful parts—Tom Sawyer, Hans Brinker, Willie the Whale, young Abe Lincoln, et al—and what the director of the station, Marjorie Knudsen, taught me on my first day there has stayed with me throughout my life. The most important element an actor has at his or her command for creating character, she said, were not words, but silence. The way you pause before a word, or between sentences, or after a particular phrase, or in the middle of a word—this, she said, is what makes listeners pay attention so that they can, in their imaginations, transform what they hear—and do not hear—into credible characters and scenes. The mystery of character—and the essence of what made listeners want to know what-happens-next, lay in those moments when there was no sound.

Here, then, from the first page of The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey Levine, a boy who plays both male and female parts in his family’s movies, and who conjures up the stories that his family turns into movies:

I could make a story out of anything back then—a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall—and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made one up that I told no one about—one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.

What Joey is doing, I now realize (I didn’t see or understand this when I was writing the novel, which is told in his voice), is trying to conjure up the seen from the unseen—just as, when listening to the radio as a boy, I conjured up live human beings I could see in my mind’s eye, and to some degree like viewers of silent movies, who had to infer the unseen—the mysteries and complexities of character—from the seen. Viewers, that is, had to infer thoughts and feelings, not from words characters spoke (though there were often titles between scenes where snatches of dialogue were projected onto the screen), but from expressions and gestures the characters made—from closeups of eyes, for example—that told of those silent, inner worlds that were un-seen. In both radio dramas, and silent films, the greatest source of mystery and power—of our attachment and interest in fictional characters—resided in ways to make us sense what we could not see, whether what we saw came to us in images or in sound.

In The American Sun & Wind Moving Picture Company, Joey is forced into exile, and we follow his cross-country adventures in both time and space—from New Jersey to Wisconsin to California, and from 1915 to 1930. He arrives in Los Angeles at a time when silent movies are giving way to ‘talkies,’ and where his uncle Karl, who directed the family’s movies when Joey was a boy, has become a major producer and director in Hollywood. In the novel’s final chapter, Joey and Joey and Karl sit on a mountain top and look down at a desert that has been the setting for a great battle the day before for the uncle’s cast-of-thouands production of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. And what do these two men do when they look down upon a scene of horrific devastation? It is the end of the Sabbath, and they talk about the sermon they heard in synagogue that morning—they talk about King David and King Solomon, and about God’s ways, and about why it is the rabbis say that on the day the Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.

Visit Jay Neugeboren's official website here.

In a Class by Themselves: A Jewish Fiction Reading List

Friday, February 15, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Michael Lavigne wrote about writing the "Radical Other" and wondered if a writer can take the ego out of writing.He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

A couple of years ago I decided to lead a group of adult learners in a class on Jewish fiction. The reason was that I wanted to share a few books I loved, and I also wanted an excuse to read some I’d never got around to. It was an amazing experience, both as a teacher and as a reader.

Re-reading some favorites – like Bruno Schulz, Primo Levi and Meir Shalev – only served to deepen my attachment to them. But the writers I’d wanted to get to know – like Clarice Lispector and Joseph Roth – were a revelation. Two or three really stand out in that category. Lispector for certain – nothing in literature is quite like her, and I urge you to read through twice before you judge. But it was Roman Gary who won my heart with his incomparable character Momo – the little Arab kid adopted by the Jewish Rosa – in a work that is simply perfection, there is no other word for it. As for sheer greatness, it has to be Yaakov Shabtai, whose Past Continuous is not only a virtuosic masterpiece, but deeply moving; also truly great is S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday, which is remarkable for its breadth, its unflinching eye, and the beauty of its prose even in translation. Each one of the works I taught has a special place in my heart, and I believe you will also find them gratifying to read or re-read. Bruno Schultz is fundamental – in a class by himself. Dovid Bergelson’s short stories, only recently translated from the Yiddish, and are a mad joy. David Grossman needs no introduction, except I strongly recommend reading Schultz first.

One note. Late in the course, I included Paul Celan, the poet, whose work is soul-wrenching and beyond beautiful. Obviously he is not writing fiction, but I can think of nothing that reflects the transformative nature of the Jewish literary experience better. I recommend the German/English side-by-side edition by Michael Hamburger.

And if you ever want to chat about any of these, I’d be delighted.

Dovid Bergelson, The Shadows of Berlin

Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles

David Grossman, See Under: Love

Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939

Meir Shalev, The Pigeon and the Boy

Clarice Lispector, Hour of the Star

Roman Gary, The Life Before You (Madame Rosa)

Arnon Grunberg, Phantom Pain

Nathan Englander, The Ministry of Special Cases

Der Nister, The Family Mashber*

Yaakov Shabtai, Past Continuous

Moacyr Scliar, The Centaur in the Garden

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience

S.Y Agnon, Only Yesterday

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March

Sayed Kashua, Dancing Arabs *

Orly Castel-Bloom, Human Parts

Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories

Paul Celan, Poems of Paul Celan

*Sessions on these two works were led by Igael Gurin-Malous.

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here.

New Reviews

Friday, February 15, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:

Not Feeling the Candy Hearts? Turn Around Your 50 Shades of Abysmal Gray

Thursday, February 14, 2013 | Permalink
Lisa Alcalay Klug's most recent book, Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe, is now available. She is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It’s that time of year...chocolates, flowers, jewelry. Sappy advertisements and red and pink store displays. There are reminders everywhere. It’s Valentine’s Day.

Sure, it’s a bit commercial (understatement) but it’s all good. We know that. It’s beautiful to celebrate love.

But what about if you don't have a special someone or even your favorite chocolate already lined up for a great Thursday night? (Or perhaps you have a loving companion but you've somehow lost yourself in the relationship.) Whatever the reason, this day, with its cards and balloons, candy hearts and kitsch, is turning your mood fifty shades of a rather abysmal gray. Instead of bringing you a great sense of joy and intimacy, this so-called celebration feels more about absence or loss. And over the course of a day that seems to have somehow overlooked your very own precious self, you find yourself thinking, “I don’t have a valentine.”

To which we respond, what do you mean you don’t have a valentine?

Of course you have a valentine.

Walk right into the bathroom. Grab a hold of the sink and look up. Yours will be right there waiting, looking you straight in the punim.

Even if you feel very alone at times, you always have a valentine. It’s you.

That’s right. No matter who is or isn’t in your life, you are your own ultimate bashert.

And naturally, you’re fabulous. How lucky you are to have you for a valentine.

Because when you’re very your own valentine, you can celebrate any way you want.

How romantic it would be to buy yourself one perfect red rose. Not a whole bouquet. Just one perfectly closed bud representing your love for yourself. Take this vulnerable darling home and place it in a vase. All it needs is just a little bit of water.

Over the course of a few hours, watch your flower bloom as a symbol of you opening up to the undying expression of your own self love, showing yourself the greatest kindness, compassion and understanding, no matter what life brings.

Choose a song that opens your heart, and helps you dream a little dream, and dance with yourself. That’s right, ignite your own boogie fever. Don’t worry what it looks like. There are no rules here. You don’t even have to watch.

Yes, it's scary to be vulnerable. Even to yourself. But it’s also easy to be your own best valentine, the kind that promises extreme self care, extreme self empathy, extreme self respect. Because when you truly love yourself, every day is Valentine’s Day.

So when you're ready, grab a pen and some paper, or maybe even some broken crayons, and make yourself a good old fashioned valentine. That’s right, make some vows to yourself, to be true to yourself, and be your most authentic self. If you find yourself suddenly tongue tied, feel free to borrow these “Marriage Vows to Me” taken straight from the pages of my book, Hot Mamalah.

It’s true, Valentine’s Day is a celebration of sweethearts. Of relationships. Of your chocolate tooth. We're not denying that. But that doesn't mean it can't also be about celebrating the sweetness of your own life and the most intimate relationship you always have, the one with yourself. Isn't it about time you commit to love, honor and cherish?

Now go on. Get real with yourself and bring a little romance to your game. Valentine’s Day with yourself is EVERY day, forevermore.

That certainly sounds like a great romance to me.

Mazal tov, now you’re a hot mamalah!

How do you know you're a hot mamalah?

Because you don't have to work hard to be hot. You just have to be you. Your most authentic self is the hottest thing of all.

How can you be sure you’re a hot mamalah?

Because a hot mamalah loves and respects herself.

How can you be positively certain you’re a hot mamalah?

Because a real mamalah is her own best valentine, today and every day.

And when you wake up the morning after, how do you remember you're a hot mamalah?

You. Just. Do.

Happy Valentine’s Day, You!

Lisa Alcalay Klug is the author of Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe and Cool Jew: The Ultimate Guide for Every Member of the Tribe.Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Forward and many other publications. Visit her online at @lisaklug |

JBC Bookshelf: Valentine's Day

Thursday, February 14, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It's been two years since a Valentine's Day edition of JBC Bookshelf. In 2011, we highlighted six titles. Today, we highlight a wide-range of titles from JBC past. Whether your love is a city, a meal, an individual, an animal, or an idea, we're confident that you'll find at least one title below to warm your heart this Valentine's Day:

Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, Ariel Sabar (2011, Da Capo Press)
Ariel Sabar explores nine real-life urban romances, each set against the backdrop of an iconic New York City public space

Paris: A Love Story, Kati Marton (2012, Simon & Schuster)
Kati Marton’s newest memoir is a candid exploration of many kinds of love, as well as a love letter to the city of Paris itself

Until Our Last Breath: A Holocaust Story of Love and Partisan Resistance, Michael Bart and Laurel Corona (2008, St. Martin's Press)
A love story that flourished despite the privations of the Ghetto and the partners’ disparate ages and social status

Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed, Leslie Maitland (2012, Other Press)
Leslie Maitland traces the love story of two young people caught up in war-torn France

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler: A True Love Story Rediscovered, Trudy Kanter (2012, Scribner)
Trudi Kanter relates the emotional roller coaster she was on in attempting to get to England with her parents and the love of her life

A Titanic Love Story: Ida and Isidor Straus, June Hall McCash (2012, Mercer University Press)
June Hall McCash tells the story of Ida and Isidor Straus, who went to their deaths together on the maiden voyage of the Titanic

If You Awaken Love, Emuna Elon (2007, Toby Press)
A story of unrequited love set in Israel

The Making of Henry, Howard Jacobson (2004, Anchor Books)
A surprising love story involving a sympathetic shiksa and a Henry Nagel's dog

The Lost Wife, Alyson Richman (2011, Berkley)
A powerful love story set in Prague as World War II begins

Shosha: A Novel, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Shosha is a hauntingly lyrical love story set in Jewish Warsaw on the eve of its annihilation

All Other Nights, Dara Horn (2009, W. W. Norton & Company)
An intelligent love story set during the Civil War

Aimée & Jaguar: A Love Story, Berlin 1943, Erica Fischer (1998, Alyson Books)
A unique and tragic love story between two women, set against the Holocaust

Dinner: A Love Story, Jenny Rosenstrach (2012, HarperCollins)
This is a love story about one woman, a family and a ritual

The Brisket Book: A Love Story with Recipes, Stephanie Pierson (2011, Andrews McMeel Publishing)
More than “just” a cookbook, The Brisket Book, includes stories, jokes, cartoons, and photographs


I Am Writer. Are You Chopped Liver?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael Lavigne wrote about writing the "Radical Other ."He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Is it possible to take the ego out of writing?

I ask this question because I ask myself why I write, and why so many people write, and why writing has quite literally taken over our society – you cannot blink without someone Tweeting, Tumbling, Facebooking, blogging, Yelping, product rating, movie reviewing, book eviscerating. Just think about the last time you wanted to buy a toaster. You went on Amazon or some other site, and there, for each of the two hundred different toasters were two hundred individual comments, some many paragraphs long, by people apparently passionate enough about their toasters to write about them, and people, like me, stupid enough to read them and have them sway my judgment. (In the end, and based on countless reviews, I ended up with a toaster I hate – Calphalon 4-slot model 1779207, two stars at most!)

But were these people passionate about their toasters or simply passionate about the fact that someone might read their opinions? Are we Tweeting to say something important or to simply assert our existence?

We all know the answer. But what about those of us who write fiction – what’s in it for us?

If I were to sit down and write without ego, that would mean first, that I don’t care about publication, and second, that I care only for the text itself and not how it reflects on me. I might wish someone to read it, but I wouldn't write it with any reader in mind. In a sense, I would be daring someone to read it: this is what it is, take it or leave it – not only do I not care about your opinion, but you should in fact have no opinion.


(Of course, I actually do hope you have an opinion of my new novel, The Wanting — 4 stars would be nice).

And yet there are moments in writing when the ego does flee. I began The Wanting by writing a story within a story within a story – it wasn't a conscious decision, it just happened that one story would suggest another, time would shift back and forth, and the whole thing felt like an onion unraveling and re-raveling – and I loved it. I wrote fairy tales and back-stories and short stories and fantastical voyages of the mind. In one case I had someone remembering a scene from childhood in which he was remembering something from earlier childhood in which he was remembering something from even earlier childhood. It was wonderful.

And then I gave it to an editor.

Her response was succinct: “Huh?” To which she added, “Can’t follow it. Too many digressions. Where’s the plot? By the time I got back to the action I’d forgotten where I was.”

I should have screamed, “So what?” That is what the real writer would do.

But what I actually did was edit the book.

Built up the plot, cut back on the complications (“self indulgences” are what writing instructors call them), and in general began taking my audience seriously.

You might say that this is the act of someone without a lot of self-regard – to place the reader first is an act of submission. But that is not so. Publication, successful publication in which you reach a large, intelligent readership and having a meaningful affect on that readership – these are worthy outcomes, yes, but they are also certainly the goals of ego.

I’m not saying anything’s wrong with that. We can only communicate using language people can understand.

But isn't something lost? Something pure and powerful and difficult and terrifying?

I honestly do think my book is better for all the rewriting and rethinking and re-imagining that happened after that first (600 page!) draft. Much better.

And it’s still not a simple read – at least I hope not.

But oh how I miss sharing with you the story about Ekim Efiv and the Bird Sorcerer, the tale of How X Escaped the Gulag and Ended Up in Our Backyard, and the memory within the memory within the memory that stood time on its head for a few dozen pages of my life.

Although who knows, maybe I’ll post them on Facebook.

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here.

Book Cover of the Week: The Girl With a Brave Heart

Tuesday, February 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Originally published in Hebrew in Israel in 2010, The Girl With a Brave Heart: A Tale from Tehran (Rita Jahanforuz; Vali Mintzi, illus.) tells the story of a young girl growing up in Tehran. Barefoot Books will publish the title in English in March.

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

Remembering Rabbi David Hartman

Monday, February 11, 2013 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council mourns the loss of Rabbi David Hartman who died Sunday following a long illness. Rabbi Hartman won two National Jewish Book Awards. The first in 1977 for his work Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest and the second in 1986 for A Living Covenant: The Innovative Spirit in Traditional Judaism.

Read more about Rabbi Hartman's work:


Writing the Radical Other

Monday, February 11, 2013 | Permalink

Michael Lavigne's first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award. His newest novel, The Wanting, will be published by Schocken Books on February 26th. Visit Michael on Facebook and visit his official website here. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In my first novel, I wrote from the point of view of a Nazi. In my new novel, The Wanting, I’ve taken on the persona of a suicide bomber from a village outside of Bethlehem. And while this character, Amir, is only one of three distinct voices in the book, his was the most painful to write and the most difficult to come to terms with. On the one hand, he murders scores of people – unconscionable and terrifying. On the other, he is also a person, not a monster. It is that person within him I was trying to access in my writing – but did I succeed? And should I have even tried?

My friend and fellow writer Jonathan Rosen (Joy Comes in the Morning, The Life of the Skies) has some doubts on this score. He wondered if I had created a moral equivalency between the victim (in this case the Russian Jewish immigrant, Roman Guttman) and the victimizer (Amir). I hope Jonathan won’t mind if I quote from his email:

“…my fear [is] that Jewish imaginative sympathy sometimes runs the risk of secretly being narcissism disguised as empathy, as we project the better angels of our nature outward in the name of human understanding and then have a dialogue with ourselves. German Jews did it with Germans, as Gershom Scholem argued so persuasively about Buber — I and Thou is sometimes Me and Me.”

This, of course, begs the question of fiction writing in general – but without addressing that (and Jonathan himself told me he genuinely thinks writers should be free to attempt anything and everything) I have to admit his misgivings give me pause. What is it we do when we write about the radical other, especially when this other has declared itself our mortal enemy and feels empowered to use any means, no matter how repugnant, to achieve its aim. Is it merely an exercise in vanity, a sort of hope against hope – wishing away the truth of the barbarity which confronts us?

I struggled with this from the onset. Just doing the research was painful in the extreme. Like poking at a sore, I had to read page after page of vitriol aimed at Jews and Israelis. The writings and rantings of mullahs and radical Islamists throughout the Muslim world frightened me, and our history reminds me it is wise to be frightened. My conversations with Palestinians and Israeli Arabs were of course less rife, but an underlying fury was never very far from the surface. I did not feel safe. Add to that the painful and inevitable realization of our own (my own) responsibility for the suffering and thwarted ambition of Palestinian people, and you can see how complex things became for me. Fear and guilt. Never a good place to write from.

So it’s not surprising that my first characterizations of Amir were flat and lifeless: in turns he was demonic, hate-crazed, and otherworldly – a kind of poet of cruelty – in others he was comic and buffoonish, a mindless machine of vengeance. I was stuck, and it was not until my Israeli reader, Michal Evron Yaniv, said, quite simply, “Just make him a person,” that I was reminded that my task as a novelist is to render all my characters with empathy – an empathy that extends throughout this awful symphony of life. And I fully admit that in the end I did perversely fall in love with Amir, because I came to see that he, too, is a victim – not so much of the Israeli occupation as of his own limited experience and the agenda of powerful forces far beyond his control or ability to understand.

I believe I’ve created a vital and living character who demands our attention and rewards our reading in a book I hope papers over nothing while attending to the thing that matters most: the human spirit.

But should there be limits to a writer’s empathy?

I welcome your comments.

Check back all week for more posts by Michael Lavigne.