The ProsenPeople

Excerpt Friday (part B): The Hat

Friday, May 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In the spring issue of Jewish Book World, Deborah Schoeneman offered the following review of Babette Hughes’s The Hat (Sunstone Press):

"Ben Gold has a regular morning routine, one that varies slightly on this significant morning, his last morning. The opening chapter then transitions backward to the young adult world of Kate Brady, who has just been laid off from her job at a local Cleveland, Ohio bakery in the 1930’s. During this time when the economy is devastated by the Depression, she feels hopeless, humiliated, and confined because of her mother’s alcoholic scenes and their poverty. When she first meets Ben, she can’t believe he would be attracted to her with her dowdy clothes and dysfunctional family life. But Kate soon realizes Ben is her passport out of her dire circumstances.

Marriage quickly follows a passionate yet pure courtship. Faint suspicions run through Kate’s head but are ignored until a devastating loss. Asking questions, threatening to leave because of what she senses are lies about something obviously dangerous and illegal, Kate forces the issue. Now she knows too much and begins to form a bond with one of Ben’s “business” partners who is assigned to watch her at all times. An attempt to escape from this world, a secret relationship, and what follows produces not one but two startling events for which the reader is totally unprepared. Ben’s father was a devout Jewish man whom Ben condemns, but the remainder of this novel begs the question of who is to be condemned. This is a terrific story that chronicles the beginning of the Mafia and its revelations that profoundly changed lives forever."

As a part of Babette’s virtual tour, JBC is pleased to offer an excerpt from The Hat: 

We spent our wedding night in the bridal suite. Ben swung open the door; there were huge vases of white, long-stemmed roses everywhere–on the end tables, the coffee table, the bureaus –even on the floor. They smelled oppressive to me, excessive and ominous, the aroma of grand funerals. On the big turned-back bed a white satin nightgown was spread out that looked to me like the gown of Aphrodite as she sprang from the foam of the sea.

Music drifted through the rooms from a radio somewhere as Ben popped open more champagne and poured it, pale and shimmering, into our glasses. We toasted our future and sipped. Then, as if silently cued from backstage, a waiter wheeled in a cart bearing silver-domed plates of foods I had never seen before. For years I could not hear certain songs or taste certain foods without the same mix of excitement and unaccountable uneasiness that I felt that night for my hours-old marriage.

“Some day he’ll come along, the man I love,” the radio sang, as I dipped the delicate poached salmon, pink and cold, into the queer-tasting caviar sauce. Afterwards, “My Melancholy Baby” always made me think of the moist, tender squab and firm gray-brown granules of gamey wild rice tucked inside. Dessert was Peach Melba served in high-stemmed goblets. We ate and sipped champagne and I felt each strange new taste and texture on my tongue, in my nose, my mouth, as it passed my throat. We spoke little, as if words had no place in such rooms sensuous with exotic flavors, love songs, the thick scent of roses, and a gown on the bed for a love goddess. Ben kept my glass filled with champagne and between courses pulled me to my feet to dance, holding me close, humming off-key in my ear.

Later, I was as nervous and ignorant as any eighteen-year-old virgin in spite of all the reading I had done–including what was then called a Marriage Manual that spoke of simultaneous orgasms and had alarming illustrations of the erect male organ. That night in the big bed my passion abandoned me and I couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about–why Anna Karenina gave up her son, her country, and even her life, or why Emma Bovary allowed her obsessions to cause her own ruin and death. But the problem wasn’t Ben’s lovemaking. The truth is that my father’s Catholicism I thought I left behind, had returned, unbidden, to find myself still unmarried in the eyes of the church. And although I had long since given up both my mother’s Judaism and father’s Catholicism, there were times that I believed the events that followed were my punishment for the sin of fornication.

Interested in more? Check out the book.

Excerpt Friday (part A): Folktales of the Jews

Friday, May 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBC is very excited about the release of the newest volume in the Folktales of the Jews series (edited with commentary by Dan Ben-Amos), the first of which, Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion, won a 2006 National Jewish Book Award. The most recent volume, published last month, brings us tales from Arab lands and JPS was kind enough to allow us to share one of the tales with you, our dear readers. Without further ado:

Three Questions
Told by Flora Cohen to her daughter Ilana Cohen Zohar

In the palace of the king there lived a Jewish vizier and a Christian vizier. The king was very fond of the Jew and wanted to promote him. The Christian vizier was jealous and said to the king: “Why do you want to promote him? “

The king said to him: “He is very wise.”

The Christian vizier said: “Ask him three questions, and if he answers you, then he is truly wise and you can promote him; if he does not know the answers, kill him.”

The king agreed and sent for the Jewish vizier. He said to him: “I want to promote you, provided that you give me the answers to three questions. If you do not know the answers to the questions I will cut off your head. These are the questions: Who is before God? God faces which direction? Who is wealthier than I (the king)? Answer me in three days.”

The Jew returned solemnly to his home, and the Christian was happy, for he thought that the vizier would not be able to answer the questions. The Jewish vizier had an only daughter who was very wise. The daughter loved her father very much, and when she saw that he was sad, she asked him: “Father, why are you sad?”At first, the vizier did not want to tell his daughter, but when she pleaded with him he told her about the king’s three questions.

She said to him: “Is that all? That is why you are sad? Do not worry, go to the coffee house and there you will surely find a man who can help you.”

The man did as his daughter said and went to look in the coffee house. One of the people in the café saw him and asked: “What are you looking for, sir?”

The vizier recounted the entire matter to him and told him what the three questions were.

The man said, “I will come with you to the king in three days time.” So it was. They met in three days time, the vizier and that man, who was tall, fat, and dressed in ragged clothes. The man brought a sack full of nuts, a candle, a box of matches, and a piece of chalk with him to the palace.

The king said: “Can you answer my questions?”

The Jewish vizier replied, “The questions are so simple that this simple Jew will answer in my place.”

The king asked the first question: “Who is before God?”

The man said to the king: “Before I answer your questions, I request the scarf of indemnity” (as a sign that he would not be punished for what he did).

The king said to him: “The scarf of indemnity is in your hands.” The man gave the king the sack of nuts and said: “Spill the nuts onto the table and count them.”

The king spilled the nuts that were in the sack onto the table and began to count: “One, two, three . . . ”

The man interrupted him: “Start counting!”

The king counted again: “One, two, three . . .”

Again the man interrupted the king’s counting and asked him to start again. He did this three times. The man said: “You count from one but I asked you to count from before one.”

The king said: “Nothing comes before one.”

The man replied: “Correct! So too, nothing comes before God for He is One and there is nothing before Him.”

The king said: “You answered my first question well. Now answer the second question: God faces which direction?”

The man lit the candle, placed it on the table and asked the king: “Where is the face of the candle?”

The king replied: “The candle has no face. It casts light in all directions.”

The man said: “So does God. He has no face for He casts light in all directions.”

The king said: “Good. Now tell me, who is wealthier than I?”

The man said: “I am.”

The king was astonished: “You are wealthier than I? How can that be? I am wealthy; I have palaces and money. You don’t even have clothes and shoes.”

The man said, “Your Majesty, lie down on the floor!” The king looked at him incredulously. The man signaled that he had received the scarf of indemnity, and so the king lay down. The man took the piece of chalk and drew a line around the body of the king. Then he said to him: “Arise, and do to me exactly as I have done to you.” The man lay down on the floor and the king drew a line around him. He was tall and wide, and when he stood up, the area where he had lain was larger than that of the king. He said to him: “You see, Your Majesty? Wealth is not a thing of this world but of the next world. When you die, you will not take your silver with you, nor your gold, but only the plot of land in which you lie. You will take up a small plot and I, the poor one, will take up a large plot. Therefore I am wealthier.”

The king was very happy. He promoted the Jew as he had wanted and had the jealous Christian vizier executed, as this vizier had wanted done to the Jew.

Reprinted from Folktales of the Jews: Tales from Arab Lands,  © 2011 by Dan Ben Amos, published by The Jewish Publication Society with the permission of the publisher.

Book Cover of the Week: From the Jewish Heartland

Friday, May 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost’s From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways , coming from University of Illinois Press in June:

Mother’s Day Articles

Thursday, May 05, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Two authors share stories and prayers for Mother’s Day:

Angella Nazarian (Life As a Visitor) writes for HuffPost: “Before Mother’s Day, a Car Accident Brought My Mom and Me Closer

Shalom Auslander (Beware of God: Stories and Foreskin’s Lament: A Memoir) writes for Tablet: “Family Plea

Jewish American Heritage Month

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month (May!), our friends over at Open Road Media passed along some great content to recognize Jewish contributions to American culture. A sneak peek of some of the content can be found here, more can be found below:

  • Is Stanley Elkin a “Jewish Writer”? — Stanley Elkin was one of the most important American writers of the last century. “No serious funny writer can match him,” wrote The New York Times. Although Elkin, much like his friend Saul Bellow, grew up in a comfortable middle-class Jewish home in Chicago, he is not typically thought of as a Jewish writer. Instead he is frequently associated with postmodern novelists like Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, and Robert Coover. To celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month, Open Road will feature a series of essays about Elkin and his relationship to Jewish literature on its blog.  The series will include contributions from literary critics Daniel Green and Peter J. Bailey, as well as Elkin’s biographer David C. Dougherty. Learn more about Elkin here.
  • Sophie’s Choice by William Styron — Winner of the 1980 National Book Award, Sophie’s Choice is William Styron’s classic novel of love, survival, and regret, set in Brooklyn in the wake of the Second World War. The novel centers on three characters: Stingo, a sexually frustrated aspiring novelist; Nathan, his charismatic but violent Jewish neighbor; and Sophie, an Auschwitz survivor who is Nathan’s lover.  More about Open Road and Styron can be found here.
  • Home in the Morning by Mary Glickman — A powerful debut from a new literary talent, this novel tells the story of a Jewish family confronting the tumult of the 1960s—and the secrets that bind its members together. It explores the Jewish experience as the Old South becomes the New South. More about Glickman can be found here.
  • Remembering Haven — When Ruth Gruber’s book Haven was published, the New York Times called it “a visceral jolt.” The people agreed. The book tells the powerful story of a top-secret mission to rescue one thousand European refugees in the midst of the Second World War. A simulated general with the approval of the US Government, Gruber escorted the refugees on this secret mission across the Atlantic to Oswego, New York. Each day carried the threat of Nazi capture. And each day, Gruber recorded the fears, dreams and stories of the passengers aboard the ship. In this short article, Open Road shares a special excerpt of Haven, along with new, unreleased quotes from Ruth Gruber herself. More about Gruber can be found here.
  • Unearthing the Archives — Lucy Dawidowicz (1915–1990) was a Jewish historian and author whose bestselling book The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945 was one of the most groundbreaking and influential books on the subject of the Holocaust. Open Road shares an inside look into the life and work of Lucy Dawidowicz, as well as an excerpt from The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945. For more information on Lucy Dawidowicz, visit here.
  • Video: Author Rafael Yglesias on Mixed Heritage — We live in a multicultural society. In this embeddable video clip, author Rafael Yglesias (Fearless, Dr. Neruda’s Cure for Evil) discusses his experience growing up in a half-Jewish, half-Latino family: “I tend to see many more similarities in those cultures than they see in each other.” Learn who in his family Yglesias considers the most classic “Jewish mother” he ever met—it may surprise you! More about Yglesias here.
For more information about Jewish American Heritage Month, resources, timelines, and events, visit here.

An E-Publishing Roundtable at The Whole Megillah

Wednesday, May 04, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Barbara Krasner of The Whole Megillah paired up e-publishing pundits Stephen Roxburgh, publisher and president of namelos, and Rubin Pfeffer, partner agent at East/West Literary Agency, to talk about e-publishing. Check it out here.

JBC Bookshelf: Fiction Edition

Monday, May 02, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2011-2012 NETWORK season is about to begin and the Rohr Prize Gala is fast approaching, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have time to share some books on the horizon. And, it’s never too early to begin your summer or fall fiction reading list, so take a look below for a few highlights from the Passover break pile (more to come soon…):

The Dovekeepers: A Novel, Alice Hoffman (October 2011, Scribner)

The Little Bride, Anna Solomon (September 2011, Riverhead Books)

When We Danced on Water: A Novel, Evan Fallenberg (June 2011, Harper Perennial)

The Warsaw Anagrams: A Novel, Richard Zimler (July 2011, The Overlook Press)

Appassionata, Eva Hoffman (May 2011, Other Press)

Heatwave and Crazy Birds, Gabriela Avigur-Rotem; Dalya Bilu, trans. (June 2011, Dalkey Archive Press)

Motti , Asaf Schurr; Todd Hasak-Lowy, trans. (May 2011, Dalkey Archive Press)




Testifying for the Holocaust

Monday, May 02, 2011 | Permalink

Last week, Deborah Lipstadt wrote about eerie anniversaries  and Hannah Arendt. Her posts have been appearing as a part of Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

This blog entry appears during the time that we mark Yom HaShoah.  It is also the time of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  I am reminded of a small article which appeared on the front page [upper half] of the New York Times on April 22nd 1943.  The article read as follows:

The secret Polish radio appealed for help tonight in a broadcast from Poland and then suddenly the station went dead.  The broadcast as heard here said: The last 35,000 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto have been condemned to execution.  Warsaw is echoing with musketry volleys.

The people are murdered.  Women and children defend themselves with their naked arms.

Save us…

I am also reminded of  some of those who buried the Oyneg Shabbes archival collection which documented the destruction.  [The following material appears in Sam Kassow’s magisterial book, Who Will Write Our History?]  Israel Lichtenstein wrote on the day he buried the archives:

I do not ask for any thanks, for any memorial, for any praise. I only wish to be remembered…. I wish my wife to be remembered, Gele Sekstein.  She has worked during the war years with children as an educator and teacher, has prepared stage sets, costumes of children’s theatre… both of us get ready to meet and receive death.  I wish my little daughter to be remembered.  Margalit is 20 months old today.  She has fully mastered the Yiddish language and speaks it perfectly… I don’t lament my own life or that of my wife.  I pity only this little nice and talented girl.  She too deserves to be remembered.

With Lichtenstein on that day was Nahum Grzywacz who was  18 years old.   When they were burying the archives he heard his parents’ building was being blockaded.  He wrote:

I am going to run to my parents and if they are all right.  I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.  Remember my name is Nahum Grzywacz.  [emphasis in original]

Also present was David Graber who was 19.  As they buried the archives Graber wrote:

What we were unable to cry and shriek out the world we buried in the ground. … We shall certainly not live to see it, and therefore I write my last will:  May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened… in the twentieth century.  We now died in peace.  We fulfilled our mission.  May history attest for us. [emphasis added]

None of these people seem to contemplate the possibility of survival.  They hungered to be remembered.

May the history we write, read, and remember attest for them.  They have attested for themselves

Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, The Eichmann Trial, is now available.

Book Cover of the Week: The Arrogant Years

Friday, April 29, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

As promised, a book to look forward to this summer: 2008 Sami Rohr Prize Winner Lucette Lagnado’s The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn:

Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann Trial

Friday, April 29, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Deborah Lipstadt wrote about eerie anniversaries. She is the author of the new book The Eichmann Trial.

I have spent much of the past few weeks talking about my new book, The Eichmann Trial. I don’t want to make this blog entry about the book. (To be blunt, I’d rather have folks read the book.) But something has struck me in the talks and interviews I have conducted.

For so many people the issue of the Eichmann Trial remains Hannah Arendt. They seem to have a hard time conceiving of the Eichmann trial independent of Arendt’s “analysis.” I am speaking of who abhor what she said as well as of those who espouse her views.

I take a more “middle of the road” or balanced perspective. Let me be explicit (for nuance, you’ll have to read the book. OK, I won’t repeat that again. Twice is certainly enough. Though, please note, I wrote read, not buy). When I speak about Arendt I try to discern where my audience – whether it be one person or a multitude — stands on the issue. I then try to stress the “other” side, i.e. if they hate – and that’s not too strong a term – her words I tell them the affirmative things she had to say about the trial and Israel. If they are enthralled with her views, I point out the glaring historical mistakes on which they are based.

Sometimes that leads to trouble.

At a talk I gave at the Center for Jewish History I assumed that many of the people in the audience were familiar with all the negatives that had been said both by and about Arendt. They knew of her [c]overt antisemitic – if not racist – comments about Israeli society and of her historically inaccurate statements about the Judenrate, the Jewish councils established in the ghettoes by the Nazis.

I, chose, therefore to speak of some of the insights she had and powerful statements she made about the significance of the Holocaust. I wanted to make it clear to them that there are a lot of grays when it comes to Arendt. Sure enough, I received a number of emails and comments accusing me of having “gone soft on Arendt.”

Conversely, when I have spoken with those, whose view of the trial has been completely refracted thorough Arendt, they hear me as critical of her and have also reacted viscerally. They defend her in a knee-jerk fashion and excoriate me for being critical of her.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if people set aside their preconceived conclusions and read what I have to say about her? (Oops, there I go again. Clearly this is the place to end this blog entry.)

Deborah Lipstadt will be blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Her new book, The Eichmann Trial, is available now.