The ProsenPeople

Anti-Semitism of a Complex Kind

Monday, October 03, 2011 | Permalink

Ned Beauman is the author of Boxer,Beetle. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize upon its initial UK release last year, and has recently been praised by the New York Times as ‘funny, raw and stylish’.

In 1893 the German writer Oscar Panizza published a story called “The Operated Jew,” a synopsis of which reads like a racially charged David Cronenberg film: a young Jewish doctor submits to a serious of painful surgical procedures to conceal his heritage, culminating with a blood transfusion from pure Ayran virgins, but just before his wedding to a blonde German woman, the operations lose their hold and he melts into a puddle on the floor. That same decade, the Zionist Theodor Herzl began using the term ‘anti-Semite of Jewish origin’, which would soon be simplified to ‘self-hating Jew’.

These days you don’t very often hear ‘self-hating Jew’ from level-headed people, but to a novelist, a self-hating anything is inherently juicy material, and “The Operated Jew,” if it had been written by a Jewish author, would probably now be a major text in Jewish Studies.

Most of us are already familiar with the story of Dan Burros, the Jewish Ku Klux Klan member whose story was the basis for the 2001 Ryan Gosling film The Believer. But my own favourite ‘self-hating Jew’ is the German-Jewish scholar Oscar Levy. ‘We who have posed as the saviours of the world, we, who have even boasted of having given it “the” Saviour, we are to-day nothing else but the world’s seducers, its destroyers, its incendiaries, its executioners,’ wrote Levy in 1920. ‘We who have promised to lead you to a new Heaven, we have finally succeeded in landing you into a new Hell.’ As a result of the storm of publicity over this article, Levy was kicked out of his adopted home of Great Britain, even as the anti-Semitic newspaper The Hidden Hand or Jewry Über Alles praised him as ‘the most courageous and honest Jew living.’

But as Dan Stone explains in his book Breeding Superman, Levy’s anti-Semitism was of a complex kind. Levy was one of the first translators of Nietzsche into English, and like Nietzsche, he didn’t acknowledge much of a distinction between Jews and Christians: both were equally at fault for the dismal state of the world, although it happened to be the Jews who’d helped to begin that decline.

And the Jews could still do something about it. ‘Yes, there is hope, my friend,’ he wrote, ‘for we are still here, our last word is not yet spoken, our last deed is not yet done, our last revolution is not yet made.’ As Stone summarises his position: ‘The Jews, the underminers of western civilisation, are the only people able to rescue that civilisation from further deterioration. Self-hatred is yet self-aggrandisement.’ To anticipate Levy in The Operated Jew, perhaps Panizza would have had to write something closer to The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde – with his young doctor as a penitent by day but also a revolutionary by night.

Ned Beauman was born in London and currently lives in New York. His debut novel Boxer,Beetle (Bloomsbury) was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize upon its initial UK release last year, and has recently been praised by the New York Times as ‘funny, raw and stylish’.

JLit Links

Monday, October 03, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter


  • In Scripture (Lori Hope Lefkovitz), a 2010 finalist for the National Jewish Book Award in Women’s Studies, will be available in paperback later this month
  • Jewish Book Network author Tom Fields-Meyer‘s son Ezra has a book coming out
  • 614: HBI ezine features Jewish Book Network authors

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Trailer

Thursday, September 29, 2011 | Permalink

Praying Outdoors

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Stuart Nadler blogged for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series about casting off one’s sins and the stories that didn’t make it.

They were small, felt, ringed in blue. We wore them to meals, to all of them, and of course, to services on Fridays and Saturdays. You were given two at the start. If you lost them, they were a few dollars to replace. Of course, they were yarmulkes, even though we never called them that, choosing, instead, to call them beanies. To have called them yarmulkes, I suppose, would have been to place them in a more strict religious context, that, as boys, we may have shirked from. Or found uncool. It’s hard to remember now. This was my summer camp near Cape Cod, a tiny, wooded outpost flanked by a fresh water lake, a dozen creaky, wooden bunks.

Even as a young kid, I recognized the chapel as something beautiful. To get there you had to walk along the water. There was a fence that separated the field from the lake. We’d go in what was supposed to be our best clothing. But we were young, and we were boys, and inevitably, we were filthy. I remember having to go down a slope, although this might be inaccurate. It’s been fifteen years since I was there last, and the photographs I’ve found on the web don’t do justice to my memories. There were three sections of benches arranged in a half-circle. Plain wooden benches like the sort you’d see at a softball field. And there was a bimah, a makeshift pulpit. Behind this was the water. There were high trees surrounding us, white pine, black gum, red spruce. The chapel, I realize now, was nothing but a landscaped clearing. There was another summer camp along the lake, a YMCA camp. And there were a few houses dotting the shore. One of them had an airplane docked out front, its landing gear retrofitted for the water, and occasionally, during services, if you were lucky, you’d see the pilot take off, or land, and then, a few moments later, you’d see the water lap up against the shore – small, insistent waves.

Most of us were secular, if not entirely unobservant in our usual lives, and these services amounted to the totality of our religious experiences. One summer, a boy had his bar mitzvah there, all of his friends pitching in together to make it happen. I remember this particular service more than the others. These were small gestures: the beanies, the prayers we sung before our meals, the imposed solemnity of our weekly walk to the chapel. I remember worrying that my yarmulke would blow off in the middle of a service, some lake-born gust of wind taking it and spilling it somewhere. This was a fear one doesn’t suffer in synagogue.

Lately I’ve been thinking about that chapel, about how lovely it was to sit out there in the woods, with the birds out overhead, and that airplane dropping slowly onto the water. There was no better place to pray quietly, to find peace, to feel gratitude at the easy beauty we had around us. I find myself wishing I could back there now, even though, I’m fairly sure I’ve long lost those felt beanies. Although I suppose, for a few dollars, I could get another.

Stuart Nadler has been blogging here all week. He is the author of The Book of Life and is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network. For more information about booking Stuart, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org.

Nathan Englander’s “The Reader”

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over at Electric LitDrew Christie animates a sentence from Nathan Englander’s latest story, “The Reader.

The Sentence: “And with all those headlights floating divided in his rearview mirror, Author never can tell which belong to his reader, which pair is his beacon, a North Star, split, cast back, guiding him on.”

JLit Links

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Stories that Don’t Make It

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Stuart Nadler blogged for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe about casting off one’s sins

At a certain point in the process, I had to do the cutting. Not the small cutting, the excising of some misplaced lines, the usual reshuffling that revision turns into at the end, everything somehow feeling more surgical than therapeutic. But I had to really cut. To kill some stories. To take them out, shelve them, end them. This is what I did, in the most unsentimental of ways – stories that I’d suffered over for months at a time, pulled from the manuscript, put into the drawer. There were fourteen stories. Then there were ten. For a few weeks there were nine. Now the book exists in its final form, and there are seven stories, all handsomely put together and bound and out there for anyone to read. But what about the others, the stories that didn’t make it?

Short story collections are, at their best, a crystallized instance of a writer’s preoccupations. In most cases the medium doesn’t allow for the concentrated energy a novel does, or for the lingering, careful introspection. At their best, a certain incidental beauty emerges, a glancing touch of something lovely, or wise. I wrote the bulk of my book in Iowa City, a wonderful town with a small Jewish Community, but where, after a few months, I found the simple task of buying candles for a menorah nearly impossible. The experience stuck with me. I’d been working on a book about a piano player. I shelved it. Slowly, the stories began to touch one another, their common threads signaling, at first, a deepening fascination about religious identity. My characters, as they emerged, were secular Jews whose notion of their identity was brittle and uninformed. Why did I want those candles so badly, when I barely celebrated any other holidays? At the end of one of these stories, a character whose father is dying announces that he has no idea what it means to be Jewish. This, it seemed to me, was what my book was about. Or what it should be about. But then, so quickly, things changed. Other threads emerged: struggling families, adulterous lovers, estranged brothers. My preoccupations were shifting.

There is a distance, often, that takes root between what a writer wants to write about, and what a writer actually writes about. Outlines become useless, taunting things. A collection of stories becomes bound by ideas the writer is not entirely away of. Slowly, this began to happen to me. The woman who eventually became my editor helped me realize that the characters I’d been writing weren’t all religious, but they were all Jews. If nothing else, this was the thread.


Photo by Nina Subin

John Cheever’s advice on putting together a story collection was to put the best story up front, the next best story last, and then arrange everything else in the middle. I heard this a few weeks after my book had been acquired for publication, an occassion that to me felt like my own, private Hanukkah miracle: my book of stories would go out into the world! But there was a whole separate book I’d shelved. In it, there is a story about a brother whose twin is dying. A story about a family whose adopted son is a painting prodigy. There is a story about a boxer who falls in love with his opponent. I’m this book’s only reader now. It’s a funny thing to see: my slight obsessions rising up and falling away. My plans for a perfectly round collection loosening. This book doesn’t have a handsome cover, or a title, or really, to be honest, any future. But it exists, if for no other reason, than to remind me of how my book got made – by cutting and cutting and cutting.

Stuart Nadler is the author of The Book of Life. Check back tomorrow for his final post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

Casting Off

Monday, September 26, 2011 | Permalink

Stuart Nadler first book, The Book of Life, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For me, the year has always begun in September. I grew up near Boston, and part of this feeling, surely, is that the season changes then, that summer ends and school begins, that in the stores suddenly there are reminders of what’s to come: Halloween masks, potted burgundy chrysanthemums, pumpkins for sale in bins at the farm stands. Of course, September, in most cases, marks the beginning of the High Holidays. It falls late this year, the bulk of the Days of Awe spilling over into October. As I write this, we’re half a month away, and in New England, there is still the residual film of summer hanging over everything. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, perhaps, the most benevolent of all our holidays, a time devoted, in part, to an introspective critique of our sins and misgivings, our failings, the grievances we carry. I took the title of my collection of short stories, The Book of Life, from the part of the High Holiday liturgy which has been my favorite since I was young: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The stories in my book are about family – about the enduring struggle between father’s and their sons, about the difficulties between brothers. But in a large part, the stories are about the sins and errors we commit against those we love.

Growing up, these were the only services we attended. We weren’t alone. The annex of our synagogue was opened to accommodate those, like us, who still found it necessary to attend. This is the story of so much of the Reform experience this last half-century, a loosening of the traditions, a slackening, a burgeoning secular identity. But it has never been a puzzle to me why these holidays remain so important. There is a solemnity, and a sober holiness to the sight of the bereaved standing among their neighbors to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. There is the insistence of the Yahrzeit candle, and the sweet symbolism of apples and honey. And there is a certain beauty to the idea that transgressions suffered in private can be absolved in public.

But perhaps the most beautiful of the High Holiday traditions is the one least known by Reform Jews, and certainly, the one least practiced. In Hebrew, tashlikh means casting off. The ritual is a simple one: you take pieces of bread, throw them into the river as if you were feeding ducks, and watch them all float downstream. To do this is to symbolically cast away your sins, to slough off a year’s misdeeds, to start the new year fresh. This comes from the prophet Micah:

He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Yes, You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.

I was in my late twenties the first time I heard of this. I was living in Iowa City, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d moved to the Midwest from Brooklyn, and I had just begun to write the stories that would make up my first book. They were, without fail, about Jewish men struggling to connect to their faith, men struggling to free themselves from the guilt of their transgressions. There is something wonderful about the idea of casting off our sins, washing away a year’s worth of errors. During Yom Kippur, the action is a collective one. We repent aloud for sins, even if we haven’t committed them. One person’s sin is the congregation’s sin. By the time I went down to the Iowa River with a few pieces of bread stuffed into my pockets, it’d been a long while since I’d been to synagogue to celebrate the High Holidays. Ten years. Probably more. But here, on the river, in the grass, a thousand miles from home, I felt compelled to begin to reconnect, to begin anew, to cast off.

Stuart Nadler will be blogging here all week and is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network. For more information about booking Stuart, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org.

Lost and Found in Brooklyn

Friday, September 23, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lucette Lagnado wrote about an arrogant revolution and about mourning her Arab Spring. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

This past weekend I was lost — and found — in Brooklyn.

My Sunday began with an appearance on a panel about the Arab Spring at the chic, hipsterish Brooklyn Book Festival. It was an animated discussion, and my fellow panel-members were amiable, but I felt lonely, very much in the minority as I spoke out against the brutal attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The attempted storming of the embassy last week was a turning point as far as I was concerned, a time to start asking tough questions about the revolution and whether it had gone seriously off-track, to demand to know what happened to the early goals of democracy and peace on Tahrir Square.

The consensus, though, was that revolutions took time to play out – one member suggested 100 years.

And I thought there was such a desperate need for change – immediate reforms.
One thoughtful panel member from Cairo did suggest that many Egyptians were shocked by the attack, that it was unexpected; I was heartened to hear at least that there was a sense of shame about it in Egypt.

I walked out feeling oddly blue, melancholy. Here I was in Brooklyn, where I grew up, and yet I was struck by that feeling of not belonging that returns to haunt me every once in a while.

As I wandered the streets of Brooklyn Heights with its multi-million dollar mansions and elegant residents, and then of nearby Park Slope which is, if possible, looking even sleeker these days, I realized that this fashionable Brooklyn had nothing to do with the Brooklyn of my childhood, the borough where my family and I had once sought refuge, where we had found a haven among equally impoverished refugees from the Levant.

I also knew the only possible way to cope with my funk was to go immediately tothat Brooklyn.

* * * *

I have always thought it was odd that with this Brooklyn renaissance, the fact that some of the borough’s most God forsaken areas have become de rigueur, my little enclave of Bensonhurst has remained decidedly un-chic.

I return every few months and find it to be pretty much the same as it was in my childhood – staid and lacking in the coolness factor.

Some more immigrant groups have moved in, to be sure, I see a lot of Russians, and even some Hassids – but not a single hipster. Not one.

Nor any of the young professional families that favor organic food co-ops.
No, those quiet somewhat dreary blocks are pretty much the way they were when I was a kid, longing to escape and wishing there was more excitement.

My trips to Bensonhurst always have a ritual quality to them, like a religious pilgrimage. I must go to this block, I tell myself, I must pay my respects to that building.

There are no people left there that I knew, not a single familiar face — my community long moved out — yet I keep returning.

The ritual includes taking my (very obliging) husband to key markers of my childhood and pointing them out all over again.

“This was our first apartment in America,” I’ll say, “This was where Key Food, my first American supermarket was situated.”

The high point of all such trips is a visit to 67th street, the block of the Magen David Synagogue (“The Shield of David” in my book), once the center of Syrian Jewish life in New York, and its frail little neighbor, the building that housed my shul.

Magen David is still there, but it is a mortuary now. I have been told there are occasional services, possibly even for the high holidays, but it is central function is clear, and has been clear for years – it is where the community comes to honor its dead.


Photo by Peter Yang

No matter how many times I hear that, it still shocks me, still makes me sad.
As for the little annex, the one that I refer to as the Shield of Young David in my memoir, it has gone through a thousand incarnations since it was sold in the 1970s. These days, it appears to be a religious school.

On this Sunday afternoon, I make a discovery that actually helps me combat my Brooklyn Heights blues. There in the front of the building of my old shul are children – young Orthodox children scampering about, running around the courtyard.

“They are playing in the courtyard, the way you did as a child,” my husband points out.

It has taken years, decades, yet I realize that against the odds, hope has come back to this small corner of Brooklyn that continues to haunt my imagination as nowhere else on earth.

Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book,  The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 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.

Celebrate the New Year with a Banned Book!

Friday, September 23, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

Banned Books Week is starting tomorrow! According to the Banned Books Week website:

“During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2011 celebration of Banned Books Week will be held from September 24 through October 1. Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982.”

As People of the Book, the freedom to read is definitely something we can support. Especially since Jews and Jewish authors definitely have some history of having their reading lists restricted or their books banned. So choose a book (here’s a list from the ALA of the top banned/challenged books of the past decade plus lists of classic banned books, and banned books by year), curl up and enjoy. If you want to celebrate even more, you can take part in Banned Books Week’s Virtual Read-Out, buy an I Read Banned Books bracelet  or an I Read Banned Books pin, or maybe go write something controversial that will put your name ALA’s list in the next few years and add it to the illustrious list of Jewish authors who have been banned or challenged.