The ProsenPeople

JLit Links

Monday, September 20, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Favorite Fictional Jewish Characters

Thursday, September 16, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of Rosh Hashanah (and in time for Yom Kippur), The Huffington Post (and HuffPost readers) share their favorite Jewish fictional characters:

HuffPost Picks

HuffPost’s Readers’ Picks

Have a few to add? Let us know!

Etgar Keret on n+1

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

n+1 offers a preview of Etgar Keret's latest book of short storiesSuddenly a Knock at the Door, not yet published in English, here. “Black and Blue” is translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger.

In the ER they said the bone was fractured and the muscle was nearly torn in two places. Some people, the doctor said, can walk away from a 50-mile-an-hour head-on collision without a scratch. Once there was this woman who arrived in the ER, a fat lady who’d fallen out of her third-floor apartment onto the asphalt, and all she had was a black and blue mark on her backside. Read On.

Jewish Book Carnival!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This month’s Jewish Book Carnival was just posted over at the JPS Blog. As always, there are some great Jewish literary posts to check out, including recent books about the fall holidays from AJL, The Jewish Manuscript Project over at JBooks, and Erika Dreifus’ conversation with Allison Amend. Check out all of the great links here.

And, stay tuned for next month’s Jewish Book Carnvial…we’re hosting!

My Other Baby

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Gal Beckerman wrote about barbecuing with hijackers. His first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, is now available. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe all week.

I’ve repeated it so many times these past few months that I don’t even think about it anymore. “I had two babies this year,” I’ll say, smiling widely. Or sometimes I’ll hold up the book and say, “Here’s my other baby.” I try to avoid the line if my wife is anywhere nearby.

It’s both a cliché and a kind of reflex at this point – both reasons to drop the whole baby thing altogether. It also feels like something a woman who’s gone through labor might not utter so glibly. And yet, I can’t give it up. It’s hard to untangle my feelings about how the book and my baby started life – my editor actually called me while I was at the hospital because I was late to deliver (!) the manuscript. It’s always felt more than just a thoughtless metaphor for me.

But now that my daughter is almost turning one and my book has made its way onto the shelves of bookstores, maybe it’s time to test if the comparison actually stands up.

Gestation period: Hands down, the book wins if we’re talking about time. I started working on it over five years ago, before I even met the mother of my little girl. It involved hours upon hours of research in archives and oral interviews. And beyond the work, there was the anxiety. There was plenty of that to go around while my wife’s belly grew, but it was concentrated in a distinct – and relatively short – period of time. Anxiety for the book took different forms at different times over the years, and it was always waiting for me around the corner, even at my most confident moments.

Seeing her/it for the first time: Since I had no idea what she would look like and had not slept all night and my wife had gone through an intense labor that involved her yelling at me about getting rid of various things in the room whose smells she couldn’t stand, I would say that the first sight of the book was a more controlled and predictable thing. My editor and I had been discussing the cover for months, then I saw the galley, and by the time the actual book came in the mail, it was thrilling (of course), but not the earth shattering event I had always fantasized about. It was already familiar to me. And as time passes it becomes even more familiar as an object, while my daughter’s face becomes more a thing of crazy wonder to me every day (it’s a little like this writer’s response to the book vs. baby question).

Fourth trimester: This is long over for my daughter, but I’m at the tail end of it with the book. It’s the three-month period after a baby is born when they are more blob than human. It’s before you really know what her personality will be, before she can interact in any way besides screaming uncontrollably. It made me a bit impatient. The analogous time for the book is once everything is done and before it is actually published, reviewed, received by the world. You are waiting and hoping and worried that your book might be ignored, that it will fall in the vast cultural forest without making a sound. All I can hope for now is that the end of that period for the book is as rewarding as it was when my daughter’s personality began to manifest itself.

These days she’s a mischief- maker and a collector of every speck of dust and stray Cheerio hidden in the corners of our small one-bedroom apartment, exclaiming “wow!” with gusto whenever she discovers something. If only reading my reviews fills me with as much joy as hearing those “wows”!

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone is now available.

Barbecuing with the Hijackers

Monday, September 13, 2010 | Permalink

Gal Beckerman‘s first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, is now available. Gal, a staff writer at the Forward, will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Writing history that is recently past always carries with it certain challenges. Most obviously, the competing versions of what happened or who did what aren’t fought out through yellowed letters in an archive but are argued by living, breathing, often highly invested people. In the five years I spent working on my book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, I can’t count anymore the number of late night phone calls I got or angry emailed screeds claiming that I was clearly not going to give enough credit to so-and-so or put enough emphasis on what some long forgotten activist who was really, truly, the sole person responsible for saving Soviet Jewry had done. For those who had been the protagonists of this story, this was their first – and for some, last – chance to make sure they were remembered the way they wanted to be, or at all.

At first this proved a real challenge to me as a historian – could it be that the Long Island Committee for Soviet Jewry was really single-handedly responsible for ending the Cold War? But as I gained confidence that I knew the story I was telling, I was also able to better balance these competing narratives and tease out something close to what I thought to be the truth.

But in spite of what was difficult – or even annoying – about this reality, I never once regretted that I was writing about a period with living witnesses. Without them, I would have lost the rich detail you could never get from a document – the color of the Moscow sky above a protest, what it really felt like to fear that any day a conscription notice from the Red Army would come for your son, or how exactly a phone call was made from Cleveland to Leningrad in the 1960′s. Lost would be also the countless hours spent sitting in living rooms in Israel, drinking tea, and watching the “characters” in my book recount their own lives, with both the emotion and subtlety that can only come from oral history.

And then there was my barbecue with the hijackers.

The hijackers were a group of Jews from Riga and Leningrad who after my early research had come to seem superhumanly brave and almost mythic in their unwillingness to accept an unjust status quo. In the summer of 1970, they decided to steal a plane and fly it out of the Soviet Union after being denied exit visas. I wrote about them recently in The New York Times on the 40th anniversary of their attempt, which ultimately ended in failure. They were arrested on the tarmac, put on trial, and sentenced to years of imprisonment – though they managed to turn enormous world attention to their cause.

In 2005, when I met them, they were in their fifties and sixties. Some had remained closer to each other than others, but they made a point of reconnecting every June 15, the day of the hijacking. The gathering they invited me to would mark the 35th anniversary – someone had baked a cake on which the number was written out with grapes. They had brought hamburgers and hot dogs to grill at the home of Boris Penson, one of the hijackers who is a painter and lives in a farming community just south of Haifa.

The first shock was just seeing them in person, come to life before me in their older, very human forms. There was Sylva Zalmanson, the only woman among the main organizers. She had bravely stood in court and recited Psalm 137 (“If I forget thee, O Jerusalem…”) before being dragged away to serve a few years in a prison camp. I described her in the book as “girlish,” petite, curly-haired, and easy to giggle. Now she was older, bespectacled, heavyset, but still just as gregarious. Then I saw Mark Dymshits, the pilot – the lynchpin of the plot – now a taciturn man in his early seventies who wore enormous tinted glasses and couldn’t hear very well.

I sat squeezed between the two of them in the backseat of a car on our way to the barbecue, with Sylva talking up the virtues of her twenty-something daughter, Anat (whose father was Eduard Kuznetsov, the former dissident maybe most responsible for the hijacking) in an obvious attempt to set us up. It only became more surreal from there. I stood around the grill with the hijackers flipping burgers under the sun. The banality and utter normalcy of it all was difficult to absorb at first.

Only as the day continued – and the vodka was poured – did I relax and accept that it was even more interesting to consider that these people I had thought of as giants were actually just ordinary people who had done something extraordinary. Meri Knokh, another of the women plotters, who had been pregnant at the time of the hijacking, pulled out a guitar and started playing Russian folk songs from the 1960′s – Vysotsky and Okudzhava. I stopped gawking and – in truth – stopped understanding much of what they’d been saying. They had switched entirely to Russian, spoken boisterously between cigarette hits and gravelly laughter.

Seeing them as just a group of friends like any other group of friends, with their own dynamic, sense of humor, and loud characters, put their reckless act in a whole new context. If I was going to tell their story, I wanted to capture this as well. Not just the heroism of people stepping boldly into the stream of history, but all that was prosaic about them and their interactions, the human quality that no amount of written record could ever have communicated as well as just watching them together on a drunken, summer afternoon.

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone is now available. 

JLit Links

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

High Holiday Reading

Tuesday, September 07, 2010 | Permalink

Jewish Book World reviewer Eric Ackland examines three new books from Jewish Lights that tackle different aspects of the High Holidays experience (this review will appear in the winter issue of Jewish Book World).


Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do About It
Rabbi Mike Comins
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010. 200 pp. $18.99
ISBN: 978-1-58023-417-7

Repentance: The Meaning & Practice of Teshuva
Dr. Louis E. Newman
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010. 224 pp. $24.99
ISBN: 978-1-58023-426-9

Who By Fire, Who By Water: Un’taneh Tokef
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, ed.
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010. 253 pp. $24.99
ISBN: 978-1-58023-424-5

For many Jews, religious services, and particularly the High Holidays can be very alien and intimidating. Lack of familiarity with prayer (both formal and informal), lack of familiarity with Hebrew and with the order of the services, and even discomfort with the notions of God and of sin only compound the boredom and discomfort that the long services may cause even those who have the knowledge and skills to appreciate them. These three books tackle different aspects of the High Holidays experience and the religious experience in general.

Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do About It by Reform Rabbi Mike Comins and with 53 other contributing Rabbis and leaders/thinkers, mostly from the liberal Jewish sects, is a wonderful introduction to the world of prayer, giving the skeptical and the unfamiliar a broad outline of understanding and a sensitive and generous permission from which to begin to experiment and explore.

Rabbi Comins and his contributors offer strategies for approaching both private and communal prayer that take into consideration many of the obstacles that moderns struggle with in terms of understanding prayer’s purpose, and in embracing its process. Even more compelling, the Rabbis share their personal experiences and thoughts about prayer with a refreshing sincerity that I confess, surprised me, as I recall the (as least to me) dry, very unspiritual Reform Hebrew school and synagogue of my youth. Rabbi Comins writes that his experience as a child was similar. I don’t know if the preponderance of congregants in the liberal Jewish world have become as earnestly spiritual as many of their leaders currently clearly are, but Jews of any background—from the unaffiliated to even the Orthodox—who are seeking to connect more deeply with God and with their heritage, and who wish to experience the transformative power of prayer will find a lot of wisdom and inspiration in this book.

*******

All of us have done (or omitted to do) things we regret, and fallen short of what would be morally ideal; for many of us, these may be ongoing patterns of behavior. Some may stifle their consciousness of wrong-doing and bury it deep within, while others may only be too aware and overwhelmed with guilt and despair. Judaism has long provided a process by which we can atone for our sins and start afresh in the eyes of God and ourselves. In Repentance: The Meaning and Practice of TeshuvaDr. Louis E. Newman, a professor of religious studies at Carleton College, begins by identifying teshuvah (repentance) as one of the “central religious-moral” teachings of Judaism, and takes a rigorous analytical approach to understanding what teshuva is and how it is done.

In 49 short chapters (none more than a few pages in length and thus perfect for reading in daily doses), Newman eloquently examines the various ways that Judaism has historically looked at sin, freewill, responsibility, fate, and atonement, before explaining the components of the teshuva process, and exploring some of the subjective factors that people encounter and struggle with in the process. Following the classic Jewish philosophers he breaks down the process of true atonement into components, which he identifies as: accepting culpability, feeling remorse, confession, apologizing, making restitution, making an accounting of one’s soul, and transformation: committing to forgo the same behavior in the future.

Although he does speak of God, Dr. Newman’s thinking is grounded in psychological reality and functionality, and thus, even those not-so-comfortable with the God-concept could derive real value from the book. However, Dr. Newman only briefly alludes to (and then essentially dismisses) the traditional Jewish understanding that there is a world-to-come to which this world is just a passageway, and that reward and punishment for earthly deeds is meted out not just in life, but, more crucially, afterwards as well. This is something which virtually all, if not all, the classic sources he cites (as well as contemporary Orthodox leaders) took/take as axiomatic and as central to understanding the full consequence and moral weight of our deeds, and thus of the potent corrective power of teshuva as well. To put the omission in context, Dr. Newman devoted a chapter (a rewarding one) to philosophically tangling with the idea of animal sacrifice as teshuva’s historical antecedent, while brushing aside this still-vital belief in a world-to-come in just a few paragraphs (he only refers to it in the past-tense), and without clearly indicating that his dismissal is neither universal nor authoritative. This is a serious omission from a historical and theological perspective, and ultimately, a disservice to readers, especially those who won’t notice the sleight-of-hand. That said, I reiterate that I found the book an otherwise worthy introduction to the subject.

*******

One of the great discomforts of praying from a siddur (Jewish prayer book) or Machzor (prayer book for a specific holiday) is not understanding Hebrew, but an even greater one can be actually understanding it. For liberal-religious Jewry in particular, this has long posed a problem. As Reform Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD. candidly describes in the insightful introduction to Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, when prayer books began appearing in translation, many Jews, both leaders and laity, were distressed by the content and meaning of the prayers. So editors,“ . . . changed the Hebrew, so that the English would come out ‘decently’; they purposefully mistranslated the originals to avoid ideas that ancient authors had no trouble with but that modern worshipers found horrifying; they composed alternative prayers in the vernacular—prayers on the same theme as the original, but saying what modern people were likely to appreciate; they called for the prayer to be sung, so no one would pay much attention to the words; or they omitted the troublesome prayers altogether.” Rabbi Hoffman neglects to mention one necessarily complementary strategy, which may or may not have been similarly deliberate: that of not adequately educating the liberal Jewish laity to be able to read and comprehend Hebrew, leaving it for the Rabbinate alone to undemocratically mediate and interpret the classic texts for the laity, much as the Catholic Church preferred for its clergy to do prior to the Reformation. (At the second Reform rabbinic conference in Frankfurt in 1845, according to Conservative movement Jewish historian Neil Gillman, fifteen conference members “voted that Hebrew should not be “objectively necessary,” thirteen voted that it should be, and three abstained.” One, Rabbi Zechariah Frankel, walked out over this issue even coming to a vote, and went on to become a forefather of the Conservative movement.)

Un’taneh Tokef, is one of the most powerful prayers in the Hebrew liturgy, and has long been central to both the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. This book, like Making Prayer Real, features essays by an array of Rabbis and other (mostly) liberal-Jewish thinkers, who here, rather than dealing with prayer in general, are earnestly tangling with the meaning of this particular prayer, the core substance of which is that of God’s power of judgment over human-beings. The prayer addresses the idea that everything we think and do is observed and recorded by God; that we are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and that on Yom Kippur, depending on the severity of our sins and whether we’ve fully repented in the intervening seven days, God decides who will live through the next year, who will die, when, and how, “Who at their end and who not at their end, Who by fire and who by water, Who by warfare and who by thirst, Who by earthquake, and who by plague . . .” and it asserts that “repentance, prayer, and charity” can avert the judgment of death. Heavy, troubling stuff, no doubt.

The essays within the book encompass history, theology, psychology, autobiography, literary analysis, and more. The range of very strong feeling about this prayer amongst the collected authors is wide. One contributor, Rabbi Tony Blayfield, DD says that for him the concept of God judging and determining when and how we’ll die is “loathsome” and even “blasphemous” (!) while for Rabbi Ruth Langer, PhD the prayer is meaningful on multiple levels. She writes that, “rational understandings of its theology should not be the only legitimate criterion. Elements of its performance, our memories and associations with past performances, its music, and the beauty of its poetry all play into our relationship with a prayer text.” Others are less troubled and engage more directly with the text.

As someone who has long struggled intellectually, emotionally, and even ethically with the content and meaning of many formal Jewish prayers (this one, not so much), I found reading the many raw, revealing, honest, and even profound essays in this book rewarding. Perhaps my greatest “take-away” from the book is the importance of not diluting the Jewish liturgy from on high so as to make it more comfortable and pleasing to modern ears. Even the contributors that felt the greatest discomfort with Un’taneh Tokef and who wish it would be censored, must engage with the concepts year after year, meaning that their moral radar must get re-engaged year after year. I remember my grandfather’s refusal to read parts of the Passover service that offended his sense of justice with fondness and admiration, but what I admired was his re-making the decision each year, as each year he was re-outraged. He would have been a lesser man for not having the opportunity. Everyone, not just an elite core of Rabbis and academics, should have the opportunity to be regularly discomfited in a way that makes them more cognizant of their conscience, the fragility of life, and of the enduring moral import of their deeds. A religion that is always comforting, that flatters and appeases and tells us we’re completely okay as we are, and that makes repentance an easy thing without great consequence if it isn’t sincere or complete isn’t one worth having. Better we should struggle and wrestle with God.

Eric Ackland is a freelance writer and editor.

100 Voices: A Journey Home

Friday, September 03, 2010 | Permalink

The Milken Archive is collaborating with Fathom Events to promote a special September 21 screening in 488 theaters of the new documentary film “100 Voices – A Journey Home.” The film features leading American cantors performing in concert in Poland, while at the same time trying to rebuild Jewish-Polish ties.

JLit Links

Friday, September 03, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter