The ProsenPeople

What’s in a Name?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Wayne Hoffman wrote about a funny thing.

When it comes to a novel, what’s in a name? There are often dozens of characters in a novel, and some of their names have stories behind them. Others, less than it might seem.

In my first draft of Sweet Like Sugar, I had a very good reason – I can’t remember it now, but I remember that it was a very good reason – that all the characters my protagonist dated had to have names that started with the letter “C.” My husband Mark, who has been the first person to read my work for more than two decades, told me this was confusing. I revealed my very good reason for keeping the names despite the confusion, and he assured me that my reason was not so very good. He was right, of course; that’s why he’s the first person to read my work.

Some characters in Sweet Like Sugar are named for real people. Most notably, an older woman named Irene is based – in the vaguest way – on my great aunt Irene, who passed away last year. My aunt was never in the situations that define Irene the character, nor did she ever say the things that Irene the character says. But there’s something about my aunt’s soul, her perspective on life, her ability to bring people together, to be direct without being cruel, to be loving without resorting to guilt, that I wanted to instill in my character. Giving her my aunt’s name helped me understand my character’s heart, and how she might act in certain circumstances. She’s not my aunt – a woman to whom no writer could do justice – but she possesses enough of my aunt’s essence to warrant her name.

Sometimes hardly anything connects the characters to the people I’ve named them for. In Sweet Like Sugar, for instance, the main character’s roommate is named Michelle, and her boyfriend is Dan. I named them for my own college roommate Dan and his wife, simply swapping which person lived with me. The characters in the book bear some passing resemblance to their namesakes -– Michelle has dark curly hair and alert eyes, while Dan is blond and tall (or taller than I am, at any rate, which is also true of half the men in the world). There aren’t any deeper specific resemblances beyond the physical, though. I just needed names for a wonderful straight couple for whom I could feel some personal affection, and they’re the ones who came to mind.

More often, there are characters who are based on real people whose names have been changed. A dancer from Rochester who opens my protagonist’s eyes about his own sexuality? He’s based on a real person in my life, but his name wasn’t Donnie, as it is in the book. A guy who chases after Jewish men, calling them “bagel boy,” hoping it’ll seem endearing instead of grossly fetishistic? He was real, too, but I changed his name to protect the not-so-innocent. Ditto a bully at summer camp, a finger-wagging grandmother, and a girl with whom I found myself in a compromising (albeit entirely innocent) position as a teenager.

If they’re based on real people, why change the names? This is fiction, remember. Sweet Like Sugar is not my autobiography. Benji, the protagonist, might be a gay, Jewish man from suburban Maryland, but despite those similarities, he’s most definitely not me: We’re from different generations, have very different families and friends, and have traveled decidedly different journeys both as gay men and as Jews. His story isn’t my story. So it’s only right that the characters in his story have different names from the characters in my real life – even in those instances where the characters are based on real people.

Although readers wouldn’t know the difference, giving characters new names allows me to disconnect them from my reality, and it lets me tweak their personalities, actions, and motivations if need be, without worrying about misrepresenting any real people.

There’s one name in Sweet Like Sugar that’s a nod to another author. It is not Rabbi Zuckerman, the old man who befriends young Benji. Yes, I’m well aware that Philip Roth has made the Zuckerman name quite famous already; my father is a Newark native who went to the legendary Weequahic High School just a few years after Roth, so I’m well aware of most everything Roth does. I had reasons – I can’t share them without spoiling the plot, sorry – for choosing that name, but rest assured, I chose it despite Roth, not because of him.

No, the name I borrowed – consciously – from another author is Zisel. A Yiddish nickname meaning “sweet little thing,” it’s also the mysterious moniker of a character in Sweet Like Sugar. I borrowed it from Isaac Bashevis Singer. In his short story “Two,” a young yeshiva student named Zisel “began to find virtues in his own sex,” and built a loving, if covert, relationship with another man. The story has a tragic ending, and the sexual politics of Singer’s shtetl are far from my own. But I loved the name, and thought it would be appropriate for my story, where two men try to bridge the vast gulf between contemporary gay life and longstanding Jewish traditions.

I don’t know if my readers will get the reference, or see the connection. But I do.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips.

Book Cover of the Week: Eden

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yael Hedaya, a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her novel Accidentsis a favorite here at the JBC. For one thing, she has written some incredible books, and for another, she is one of the screenwriters of the original, Israeli version of In Treatment.  On top of all that, she’s had some great book covers.

Exhibit A:


Exhibit B:


Exhibit C:


And, now, time for the latest. The paperback edition of her most recently translated novel, Eden, which is due out on Sept 27th from Picador:


A Funny Thing Happened — True Story!

Monday, August 29, 2011 | Permalink

Wayne Hoffman‘s most recent book, Sweet Like Sugar, is now available. Hoffman is  the deputy editor of Nextbook Press and will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

My mother has always been a great storyteller: In recounting any anecdote, she knows exactly which details to leave out and which ones to exaggerate for maximum impact. She has a keen sense of the ridiculous. Plus she’s got impeccable timing. Meet her for the first time or the hundredth time, and she’ll launch into a story that’ll have you laughing in thirty seconds.

Okay, maybe that makes her more of a stand-up comedian than a storyteller. But we’re Jews. It’s a fine line.

With her excellent sense of what makes a story compelling, she’s always on the lookout for her son-the-writer. “Here’s something you could write about,” she’ll tell me as she launches into a new bit, almost begging me to steal her material. Or, after I tell her something she finds particularly amusing, she’ll advise me: “You should write a book about that!”

If I wrote a book about everything my mother thinks is book-worthy, I’d have a very busy literary agent. But the truth is, the things I find fascinating or hilarious for a few seconds would rarely retain my interest for an entire book, while the events that inspire me to write a novel aren’t always neat and self-contained anecdotes.

An example:

Several years ago, I was working as managing editor at the Forward, an English-language Jewish newspaper. We shared space with the legendary Forverts, our sister newspaper, published in Yiddish. One day, an editor from the Forvertscame into my office and asked if one of his employees could rest on my couch. I looked up and saw a man behind him, holding himself up against the wall. He had a full gray beard, thinning hair and spectacles and a yarmulke on his head, and I figured he was somewhere past his 80th birthday.

I didn’t know him, didn’t know his name, and didn’t even know if he spoke English – not everyone at the Forverts did. But he was very ill and clearly needed to lie down, and my office had the only couch in the newsroom, so I said yes. He came in, kicked off his shoes, and lay down on my couch without a word.

Every few minutes, one of my reporters would walk into my office to ask me a question or complain about something. (That’s what managing editors are for.) I’d hold up a finger to shush them, and then point at the couch. They’d give me a confused look – they didn’t recognize this man either – but they’d back out and leave him in peace.

Periodically, I’d look over at him as he lay there, snoring or moaning or mumbling, and I’d be amazed that the two of us were sharing this space, even temporarily. I wondered what we could possibly have in common – an elderly Orthodox man who spoke Yiddish, and a (relatively) young, gay, secular Jew who was more comfortable in Spanish. If he woke up, what would we say to each other? What could we say to each other?

There’s no great ending to this scene, no punch line; eventually the old man got off the couch and went back to work. But that afternoon started the gears turning, and eventually inspired the opening scene of Sweet Like Sugar. It’s not what happened that captured my imagination. It’s what might have happened that drove me to spend the next few years writing the novel.

Plenty of other fascinating things happened in that office. There was the night an unmarked package that was ticking arrived in the newsroom, and I was the designated person to deal with it. (“I’m running toward the bomb as fast as I can,” I assured my boss when he got on my case. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a bomb, but an ill-advised promotional toy from the NBA.) There was the time we sat around trying to come up with the most outrageous headlines for a story about an elderly Yiddish poetess who’d started writing erotica. (Most of them were too bawdy to mention, but I’ll include my favorite headline-that-dared-not-be-printed: “Oy, Me So Horny.”) There were all the wonderful typos that made it into print despite our best efforts – including an error that turned the title of a show about Golda Meir from Golda’s Balcony into Golda’s Baloney, which has a very different ring.

Those are all great stories. I tell them all the time. But I’m not going to write a book about them, no matter what my mother thinks.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips. He is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network. For more information on booking Wayne, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org.

Maus-iversary

Monday, August 29, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Alyssa Berlin

There are very few books that I have read more than once. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is one of the few that I have wanted to pick up again and again. Every time I’ve gone back to it, either to reference for school or as a personal refresher, I’ve found myself sitting for hours on end rereading the entire book from beginning to end.

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of Maus, which, for those who don’t know, is a graphic novel that revolutionized the way people thought and read about the Holocaust. It has graced our bookshelves for a quarter of a century, and has impacted many of our lives.

In October, Art Spiegelman will publish  MetaMaus, which will take readers on a  journey inside the modern classic. MetaMaus describes Spiegelman’s thought process behind Maus, his failures and successes, and gets to the bottom of why exactly he chose to publish his father’s story as a graphic novel. Each page is more beautiful than the next , with pictures of his original sketches, family photos and mementos from the whole process. Included with the book is a hyper linked DVD of Maus with an in-depth archive of audio interviews with his father, photos, notebooks, drawings, essays and more which add even more to the richness of this book.

The book comes out on October 4th, so if you have a chance pick it up, I promise that you’ll find yourself as engrossed in it as your were in Maus.

Pro-Israel? Anti-Israel? No, Just Israel.

Friday, August 26, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith and about what we believe. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Last week, the American Jewish Committee renounced a statement made by one of its staffers. The AJC’s Director on Anti-Semitism suggested that some Israel supporters are distorting the 1964 Civil Rights Act when they argue that colleges – that hire anti-Israel professors and support anti-Israel rallies – are in violation of the law. The Director said that the Israel supporters went too far.

I am a college professor and a Jew – and a supporter of the State of Israel –  but the issue is too complicated for me to address directly, with anything like authority. But it did remind me — as it probably does you — of dealings I’ve had with relatives. The issue is too divisive to leave many Jewish families untouched.

In my case, I have relatives who will brook no criticism of any Israeli government.  (And I’m sure they’d complain that I criticize Israel too quickly.)

I feel passionately about it. I have argued that current Likud policies are unjust and what’s more – though I don’t think there shouldn’t need to be a “what’s more” – strategically bad for Israel. For this criticism I’ve been asked: “Why do you hate Israel?” “Why are you a self-hating Jew.” Neither of these things is true about me: I don’t hate Israel and I’m not a self-hating Jew. (Well, there are things about myself I dislike, but Judaism isn’t among them.) The point isn’t just that any disapproval of Israel over any issue is taken for anti-Semitism; it’s that both sides are so emotional, and disagree so heartily about this when they agree on most other things.

As for me, I understand why my arguments drive my relatives crazy. The reasons are clear. 1) The other side is worse; Arab nations and the more radical Islamists among them are unreasonable, and frightening, and undoubtedly behave worse than Israel does. 2) There is a disproportionate response in world opinion; Israel is condemned for every misdemeanor it commits, while much more serious violator nations face no public opprobrium, at all. The reason seems to be anti-Semitism. 3) Israel has been attacked by belligerent neighbors and so needs the support of its supporters at all times.

These are all true. But it’s equally true that Israeli supporters in the U.S. often have a hard time admitting that hardships were suffered by Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence: that the Palestinian grievance is real. (Ironically, Israelis have come to terms with this – and are more honest about it – than we Americans are. Read any of the Israeli “New Historians.”) And it’s also true that, on the settlements issue, there is a lot of room for disagreement. Being critical of a particular government’s particular policy does not equal abandonment.

Again, I know the other side would disagree and call me naive. What strikes me is that, if we can’t agree among ourselves about it — if American, pro-Israel Jews are so divided — is it any wonder that the problem has persisted for over 50 years?

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy

JLit Links

Friday, August 26, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

What We Believe

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith.

I’ve done an informal poll — I admit, it’s very informal — among Jews I know: What do we believe? A pretty fundamental question, right? And yet there is no consensus of belief, even regarding the most bedrock principles of faith.

What’s more, this belief discrepancy doesn’t exist just between our religion’s big three wings (between ReformConservativeOrthodox); it exists within them, too. Ask a few observant Jews what happens to us after we die.

Some will say: “We sit at the hand of G-d — and the closer we are to Him, the more kindly we had been on Earth.”

Some will say: “We live on, in the memories of our friends.”

Some will say—and these are people who believe, as Madonna does, in the Kabbalah — that there are seven actual heavens.

This sort divergence existed among us even in olden times, well before we’d split into our three current camps. In the Second Temple Era, the Pharisees believed in bodily resurrection for the dead, while the Essenes believed that the soul itself is immortal. And the Sadducees — an old sect I had never before heard of — believed, apparently, in neither: Not in an immortal soul, nor in any afterlife. (Maybe that’s why they had “sad” in their name.)

Another point of eternal Jewish dispute is the MessiahMaimonides wrote a commentary that argued for a non-mystical messiah:

Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living…

Don’t you love the modern sound of that? You can hear the blustery uncle at a 21st-century seder table in that last bit, the “very easy for people to make a living” part. (Maybe, like my uncle, Maimonides had a Garment Center guy who could get him a nice suit for a good price.)

I don’t write this to be disrespectful. I think it’s a wonderful fact about Judaism — at least about the approach to Judaism I most relate to: there are no universal answers, we don’t have it all figured out, G-d is unknowable.

I wonder: Is this uncertainty, this lack of knowledge we have about the thing that is so central to so many other faiths? Is it because so many of us spent so many of the last 2,000 years forgetting Hebrew? Praying in a language a lot of us could phonetically sound out but not fully understand?


Photo by Robert Birnbaum

That is probably too simplistic; certainly the most devout among us — certainly a Maimonides — spoke and understood Hebrew fluently. But how many American Jews, say, actually speak Hebrew with real understanding — how many understand all the words to all the prayers?

Moreover, how many subscribers to such “hip Jew” publications as Heeb and Jewcy have a real textual understanding of the religion with which they so identify? These are unanswerable questions. But compare all this Jewish uncertainty with the inflexible sureness of evangelical Christians (not to mention fundamentalist Muslims). This is, paradoxically, why I know I feel a kinship with Judaism that goes beyond the cultural and familial bonds I have with the faith: the not-knowing.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoyHe will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Book Cover of the Week: My Russian Grandmother and Her American...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

National Jewish Book Award Winner Meir Shalev has a memoir coming out on October 4th (translated by NETWORK author Evan Fallenberg):


JBC Bookshelf: Fall Nonfiction

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This fall brings not only a bounty of fiction, but a bounty of nonfiction, as well. This edition of “JBC Bookshelf” offers memoirs, a “biography,” and humor, taking us from Israel to Egypt to France (keeping with the “travel” trend). Many of the below titles will be reviewed in our fall or winter issue of Jewish Book World, so be on the look out for more about each of them. And, while we love bringing you fall book treats, we also have another (literary) treat in store for you…stay tuned…

Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore (October 2011, Knopf)
Watch Simon Sebag Montefiore talk about Jerusalem with the BBC here.

The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by her Daughter, Elisabeth Gille; Marina Harss, trans. (September 2011, NYRB Classics)
Have you read Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise?

Bad for the Jews, Scott Sherman (August 2011, St. Martin’s Griffin)
Fun Fact: Scott Sherman writes for The Colbert Report.

The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, Lucette Lagnado (September 2011, Ecco)
Lucette Lagnado won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her Memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World .

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir, Meir Shalev; Evan Fallenberg, trans. (October 2011, Schocken)
Meir Shalev won the 2007 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for A Pigeon and a Boy.

  

Darin Strauss on Faith

Monday, August 22, 2011 | Permalink

Darin Strauss’s most recent book, Half a Life: A Memoir, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Faith is a private issue. At least, I consider it to be one. (Try telling that to Tea Party evangelicals, though…) I consider myself a Jewish writer—even if my characters frequently are not Jewish—in the same way, I guess, that I consider myself a Jewish man, even though I don’t often attend shul.

In another post I’ll talk about my books (particularly Chang & Enga novel about the famous and Asian conjoined twins, and Half a Lifemy non-fiction book about me). Here, today, I want to discuss faith.

I felt sheepish this week when I admitted to someone that I pray each night. My prayer is improvised—though like some standard jazz performance, the improv happens within pretty strict parameters—and asks for nothing. It wasn’t always this way.

prayed every night for as long as I can remember—at least since my Israel bar-mitzvah some 27 years ago. But until recently I would ask G-d  for favors. Nothing extravagant, nor even of a material nature. But my prayer was a homemade mix of thanks and request. I didn’t use a standard, Jewish prayer-book prayer because 1) I don’t speak Hebrew, and 2) it seems to me that if one doesn’t know the meaning of what one is saying, that ignorance is an impenetrable barrier between oneself and G-d. Now, I could’ve learned Hebrew, sure. But it seemed (and I’ll admit this may have been my laziness) that talking to G-d directly was a better way of expressing my own personal feelings of belief and appeal and doubt and gratitude.

But recently, as my own comprehension of my faith increased, I realized there was much I didn’t believe. Or, not that I didn’t believe, exactly, but that I had serious doubts about a few things. For example, it struck me as unlikely that G-d involves Himself with the daily minutiae of every single life on the planet. That an omnipotent creator of life would find himself shackled with that duty seemed improbable—it struck me as beneath Him. Also, how to explain the conflicting nature of some prayers? E.g., What to do when a million people pray for one thing, and another million its opposite? And what about not only the Holocaust, but every year’s untold tsunami and earthquake victims? Hadn’t they prayed? And sick children—etc.

All the same, I believe in G-d, and also that Judaism is closest to what my conception of G-d is—not to mention I have a steep cultural attachment to this religion and her people. And so I decided to keep on praying, but just not to ask G-d for anything. The thing is, I truly am profoundly thankful to G-d for all the blessings I have received in my life, beginning with the gift of Life itself. Now, whether my not asking for good things to happen to me is subconsciously intended to win me brownie points with G-d is something I can’t answer. But I do feel the need to give thanks, and also not to feel hypocritical by asking for things when I have doubts that G-d would answer me.

That is not to say I haven’t broken my little rule; that I haven’t taken up the mantle of hypocrisy now and again. But I do so for my 3-year-old son. (He has been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I have prayed, and will continue to pray, for his health and comfort.) It seems to me a little hypocrisy in the service of fatherhood may get a bit of a divine pass.  But who knows.

This homemade ritual feels right for me; I’m not saying anyone else should embrace it.  I hope others would give me the same wide faith devotional birth.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy. He will be blogging here all week.