The ProsenPeople

President's Day Reading

Monday, February 13, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I know there's still a whole week before President's Day, but in order to give you time to prepare, I've compiled a few highlights from our review collection that focus on American Presidents and the Jewish community. Feel free to comment with additional suggestions!


 

JLit Links

Friday, February 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Keeping Doubt Alive

Friday, February 10, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Eric Weiner wrote about carrots, fish, and Jewish souls and the pleasures of spiritual travel. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Like most people, I used to view doubt and faith as occupying two opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. In my mind, there were people of faith, True Believers, and then there were the Doubters, like myself. A vast and impassable ocean separated these two groups. Or so I thought.

I don’t think that way anymore. After traveling the world and diving into several of the world’s major religions (and a few minor ones), I’ve concluded that doubt represents not an absence of faith, but rather, is an integral part of it. I wouldn’t say I celebrate doubt, not anymore than I celebrate that pain in my left knee telling me I need to see the doctor. But I do accept it, value it, and recognize its role in the spiritual life.

True some religious people desire certainty— and only certainty. For them, doubt represents weakness, an absence of faith, or at least an incomplete faith. In short, doubt is the enemy. But that is only one way of being religious. There are others. Psychologists have identified the “quest personality.” That is one category that I – and many others I expect– fit into perfectly. A Quester is someone who seeks knowing full well she will never find definitive answers.

Doubt can paralyze, yes, but it can also motivate. The opposite of doubt is not certainty but action, forward momentum. As E.F. Schumacher, the renegade economist put it, “Matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” In other words, matters that are beyond doubt have nothing to teach us.

In my travels, I’ve met many deeply religious people who, nonetheless, live comfortably with doubt. My friend James, for instance, is a Buddhist who still has many doubts — about reincarnation, for instance—but this does not prevent him from practicing his faith, and benefitting from it.

Nearly all religions, in varying degrees, acknowledge the role of doubt, but perhaps none more so than the Jains, the ancient faith based in India. The Jains have a term, syadvada, which literally translates as a “multiplicity of viewpoints,” but is also referred to as “maybe-ism”.

Essentially, syadvada says that for every “truth” that we hold dear there are other, equally valid, truths. For the Jains, syadvada is a way of life, and it permeates every aspect of their faith, including their doctrine of nonviolence.

The Jains know instinctively that where certainty reigns, nothing else can survive. Where there is doubt, there is also possibility. And life.

A version of this article appeared on Washingtonpost.com.

Eric Weiner is a former foreign correspondent for NPR, a philosophical traveler—and recovering malcontent. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available.  

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Gal Beckerman

Friday, February 10, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I'm sure it comes as no surprise that Gal Beckerman, winner of the 2010 Jewish Book of the Year Award, is a finalist for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for his book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Gal is no stranger to the Jewish Book Council: he's blogged for us, toured on our Network, and won a National Jewish Book Award. The Rohr Judges were also impressed with his work, siting it as "[a] comprehensive, balanced and enthralling book on the history of the Soviet Jewry movement." In our final installment of "Meet Sami Rohr Finalist...", Gal shares his guilty reading pleasure and some of his inspirations:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

I’d have to say it’s the challenge of “casting” the book correctly. So much of turning history into narrative has to do with finding the right people through whom you can tell the story. This is not always straightforward, especially when you are trying to present an engaging version of a history that is otherwise rambling, takes place over decades with different periods of boom and bust, and involves hundreds of central players — as was the case with the Soviet Jewry movement. Unless you want the book to turn into a jumble of facts, you need to find individuals to act as needles that will help the reader thread their way through.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

There are a few writers who have worked on large canvases but never lost sight of telling a human story. I’m thinking of authors like Taylor Branch in his Parting the Waters trilogy about the civil rights movement; Adam Hochschild’s books on social movements and anything by David Halberstam; or Tom Segev’s excellent histories of Israel.

Who is your intended audience?

Everyone, or anyone who is interested in the past and can be drawn in to a good story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

There are a few ideas jostling around in my head, competing to become the object of my obsession. Generally speaking, I’m interested in continuing to explore those places where the Jewish story intersects or affects the American story. And, as always, something that has a strong narrative.

What are you reading now?

Just finished Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern and indulging in one of my guilty pleasures, noirs, reading Martin Smith Cruz’s Arkady Renko series.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

Probably the womb. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. The question has been what kind of writer, and that has been settled only more recently over the past ten years when I discovered what a good fit long form narrative, and history in particular, was for me.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

For me, it’s simply being able to keep writing for a living — and to continue producing books. Given the economic insecurity that comes along with doing anything creative, that would feel like success.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I don’t have any special rituals, though I do need quiet and time.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

A more complete sense of the Soviet Jewry movement and the role it played in history. And ideally, pleasure.

Gal Beckerman is nominated for his first book, When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, which was awarded the 2010 National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Book of the Year. He is an opinion editor at The Forward and has written for The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He was recently a Fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Berlin and lives in Brooklyn.

Book Trailer: Flatscreen

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Adam Wilson's debut novel, Flatscreen, will be available from Harper Perennial on February 21st. Be sure to check back here the week of February 20th for his guest blog posts for the Visiting Scribe.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Ruth Franklin

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

So far this week:

  • Abigail Green brought our attention to an early twentieth century history book for British children: Our Island Story
  • Jonathan B. Krasner revealed that one of his new projects focuses on the evolution of the term Tikkun Olam since World War II 
  • James Loeffler listens to pulsing electronic dance music while he writes

Today we hear from Ruth Franklin, a former Network author and Visiting Scribe blogger (read her posts here). Ruth Franklin's work, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, was deemed "an important, insightful, and perceptive book about Holocaust memoirs" by the Rohr Judges. 

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

I love to do research—I could bury myself in the library for weeks on end, following tangents and chasing down obscure footnotes. But all too often I wind up with gargantuan notes files that can make it hard to see the bigger picture. The greatest challenge for me is knowing when to stop researching and start writing.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

Many contemporary literary journalists and critics inspire me: my editor, Leon Wieseltier, as well as James Wood, Daniel Mendelsohn, Janet Malcolm, Cynthia Ozick … the list is long. Looking back, Alfred Kazin is one of my models: he goes deeply into the books he writes about, but also draws out their connections to the real world we live in—and always with great clarity of style.

Who is your intended audience?

I hope my book reaches not only people who are interested in Holocaust literature, but anyone who is concerned about how catastrophe can be represented in art—and how faithful such representations must be to the facts of history. The false-memoir boom over the last decade, from Binjamin Wilkomirski to James Frey, brought this peculiar form of literary crime to the front pages. But the question of how to draw the contours of truth in fiction, from an artistic standpoint as well as an ethical one, has been around since the novel form was invented, and it is far from clear-cut. My book is addressed to anyone who has ever read a novel and wondered how much was based in reality—and whether it matters.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m writing a biography of Shirley Jackson, the author of the short story “The Lottery” and the novel The Haunting of Hill House, among many other works. Jackson, one of the defining writers of the midcentury, was also a housewife and mother, and much of her fiction explores the tensions of this dual role. My book is centered around Jackson’s marriage to the seminal Jewish literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman and the personal and social complexities of their union. Many scholars believe that “The Lottery” was inspired by the anti-Semitism that the couple experienced after moving to an insular New England town. Jackson devoted much of her work to the crueler aspects of human nature, particularly religious and racial prejudice.

What are you reading now?

I’ve been immersing myself in books about Gertrude Stein for an event I just did with the scholar Barbara Will at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Will’s new book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma, tells the story of a little-known moment in Stein’s career when she actively promoted the Vichy regime and even translated some of Pétain’s speeches into English. It raises some very interesting questions about what exactly it means to be a collaborator and why some of the twentieth century’s greatest writers also happened to be fascists.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, when I would bang out stories on my grandfather’s electric typewriter. But for a long time I thought I would be an editor instead. It wasn’t until I arrived at The New Republic and was first asked to write book reviews that it seriously occurred to me that I could do this for a living.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

When I’ve written something that is personally meaningful and it inspires other people to think about the subject in a new way, I feel successful.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I feel superstitious about admitting this, but I have a lucky sweater that I wear on particularly challenging days. It’s a big, ratty, unraveling, supremely comfortable gray cardigan that I’ve owned for years. I never wear it out of the house.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope readers will come away from my book with a new appreciation for the value of fiction—all forms of art, really—as a way of representing catastrophe. As far back as humans can remember, we have always used art to make sense of the world around us. But when it comes to the Holocaust, art has been stigmatized as detrimental to collective memory. My book seeks to restore literature to its proper place, arguing that to get at the truth, sometimes you have to use your imagination.

Ruth Franklin, a literary critic and a senior editor at The New Republic, is nominated for her first book, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Her writing also appears in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by Curtis Martin

JBC Bookshelf: Spring is Near

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I know it's still only February, but I can smell spring. Really! I can! Almost every title to recently cross my desk has a spring pub date, and that just makes me happy. The new titles come in all shapes and sizes (as you can see below) and bring the promise of warmer weather and outdoor book clubs (ok, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself...). Point is: loving the new crop of books. And, there's more where these came from. Our 2012-2012 Network authors are signing up now and will begin to appear on the ProsenPeople pages very soon. Until then...three from the shelf:

Beyond the Sling: A Real-Life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way, Mayim Bialik (March 2012, Touchstone) 
Did you know Mayim is blogging over at Kveller? If you read her blog, you get to find out about cool things like this.

Unterzakhn, Leela Corman (April 2012, Schocken Books)
I've been waiting for this one to come out since March 2008, so it's a complete pleasure to finally have it in my hands.

Promiscuous: "Portnoy's Complaint" and Our Doomed Pursuit of Happiness, Bernard Avishai (April 2012, Yale University Press)
Attn Roth Fans: we compiled our Roth reviews for you here


Happy National Read in the Bathtub Day

Thursday, February 09, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of National Read in the Bathtub Day, we put together a few bathtub reads:



The Ministry of Special Cases: "...Kaddish fears his son will be arrested merely for having political books in his bedroom, so he burns them in the bathtub..."

Once: "...But after she is arrested for writing “words that sounded good...words that God would use” on a bathroom wall, he asks her..."

The Invisible Bridge: "Perhaps the grandest quality of Orringer’s writing is her ability not merely to describe and tell the reader but to place the reader within the locale of the story, which ranges from the seamy jazz clubs of Paris to a men’s bathroom awash with the blood of a beaten friend..."

The Lost Minyan: "The Conversos pass on their old ways to their children by teaching them the Jewish laws of circumcision, eating kosher, bathing, refraining from work on the Sabbath, and burial of their dead, while admonishing them never to speak of their secret beliefs."

Fault Lines: "'So how’s life in the bathroom, Sadie?'" 

Light Lowering in Diminished Sevenths: "I’m jolted awake in thick dark en route to the bathroom, gripping soft walls that collapse in a clatter of hangers."

The Perils and Pleasures of Spiritual Travel

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Eric Weiner wrote about carrots, fish, and Jewish souls. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve written a book about my “spiritual journey,” fully aware what an oft abused, dangerously clichéd term it is. The problem with “spiritual journey” (one of many, actually) is that it is usually used aspirationally. We venture far from home, in search of something, and so we convince ourselves we found it.

Just because we label a journey spiritual, though, doesn’t make it so, and the fact is: sometimes we’re better off staying at home. “The farther you travel, the less you know,” warns Lao-Tzu, the Taoist sage.

Yet this was the same sage who gave us the wonderful aphorism: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Was Lao-Tzu conflicted? Was he deliberately trying to confuse us?

I don’t think so. He knew that it’s not whether we travel or not, but how that matters. Travel, done properly, disorients us, and it is through this disorientation that any spiritual journey actually lives up to its name. This is the sort of travel Henry Miller had in mind when he said that “One’s destination is never a place but a new way of seeing things.”

If different places didn’t evoke different feelings, different ways of experiencing, we might as well stay at home, especially now, given the enhanced interrogation techniques that pass for air travel these days.

But we must choose our places carefully. Many supposedly sacred places disappoint. Freighted with history, and our outsized expectations, they collapse under the weight of their own sacredness.

Such a fate has befallen many a shrine or temple. Whatever spiritual essence once existed there has long evaporated, siphoned off by opportunists and posers. Today they possess all of the divinity of a Greyhound bus station. They are dead places.

Then there are places like Tzfat, in northern Israel. There, the air is soft and plush. It is no dead place. Ever since the 16th century, Tzfat has been a center of Kabbalah, the mystical arm of Judaism, and it still attracts those looking for taste of the ein sof, or infinite.

The denizens of Tzfat are spiritual free agents, cobbling together a bit of this, a bit of that, and somehow making it all work. It is one of those places that the early Celts called “thin places,” locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and, for perhaps the first time, we can taste the divine.

Eric Weiner iis a former foreign correspondent for NPR, a philosophical traveler—and recovering malcontent. His new book, Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, is now available.  

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...James Loeffler

Wednesday, February 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this week, we asked Sami Rohr Prize Finalists Abigail Green and Jonathan B. Krasner a few questions about their inspiration, audience, and process. Today, we hear from James Loeffler, whose first book The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire was published by Yale University Press. The Rohr Judges agreed that James's book contained "[a] treasure trove of music, music history and general cultural materials that will help us understand what would have otherwise been only more buried evidence of the rich Jewish past in the age of the killers and tyrants." Below, James discusses the international human rights movement, Miles Davis, and electronic dance with the ProsenPeople.

What are some of the most challenging things about writing non-fiction?

For every individual story that makes it into a book of history, there are a hundred other fascinating lives that don’t. That’s a hard choice to make. And it’s made even harder by the knowledge that each person’s life is unique. Leaving someone out of the narrative doesn’t just deprive them of a spot in history, it also potentially alters the storyline itself.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing non-fiction?

This may sound cheeky, but I find the most inspiration for non-fiction in works of fiction. Of course it’s true that the rules of writing fiction are completely different. But fiction authors are, by definition, master storytellers. The purity of plot reminds me how a good narrative can truly take the reader inside a different world—like the distant past.

Who is your intended audience?

I wrote this book for anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a piece of classical music; anyone who’s ever suffered through a piano or violin lesson; and anyone who’s ever picked up a paper and found themselves counting the Jewish names involved in a story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I am writing a book now about another arena in which Jews have played a disproportionately large role in modern times: the international human rights movement. From Amnesty International and Richard Goldstone to Natan Sharansky and UN Watch, Jews have become idealistic icons and passionate critics, tireless proponents and vocal skeptics about the international human rights community. My book seeks to go back to the early decades of the human rights movement after World War II, to retrace the forgotten story of Jewish participation in the birth of human rights at the United Nations. My aim is to shed new light on just where human rights come from in modern times and to puncture some pious, persistent myths of both the Left and the Right, about the relationship between Jews, Zionism, and human rights.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just been reading a collection of Chopin’s letters, where alongside a bunch of anti-Semitic rants I was amused to find his description of his adventures playing klezmer music with Jewish folk musicians in a Polish shtetl.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

In high school I was a deep devotee of the music of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. And I was a semi-professional jazz musician. Yet when he died early in my senior year, my first reaction wasn’t to put on one of his records. Instead I felt the urge to grab a pen and notebook. I began writing what would become my first published essay—a literary tribute to him. It was then that I knew I wanted to be a writer. As much as music stirred my soul, the way I sought to communicate my thoughts and passions in life was through words on the printed page.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Success is about the art of clarity. When the words on the page distill the essence of an idea or a question and I’ve captured reality, then I feel like I’ve reached a peak.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

My deep, dark secret is that even though I often write about classical music, I prefer to have pulsing electronic dance music playing in the background. The louder and noisier, the better. Somehow the beat and sound screens out other distracting thoughts and frees up my mind to concentrate better on writing.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

If they listen to one of the composers mentioned in the book, dayenu—that’s enough. But more broadly I want readers to consider delving more deeply into the remote corners of the Jewish cultural past. History is not just about reinforcing our sense of who we are today and how we got here. History is about recovering the roads not taken, and exploring where they might yet still lead us.

James Loeffler, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, is nominated for his first book, The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire. He works broadly on the intersection of Jewish culture, politics, and identity in modern Eastern Europe, Israel, and the United States. He has published extensively in the field of Jewish musical studies, with a specialization in the history of Jewish folk and classical music traditions in Eastern Europe. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.