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JLit Links

Thursday, March 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Randy Susan Meyers Dishes about Tours, Writing, and Murder

Thursday, March 08, 2012 | Permalink

Today, Alicia Oltuski interviews Randy Susan Meyers, who wrote The Murderer's Daughters, about her experience touring the nation's synagogues and JCCs with Jewish Book Council...and talking about domestic violence in Jewish communities.

How and when did you first hear about the Jewish Book Council and their author tour?

When my book came out, my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent pushed me to try out for the author tour. "Don't forget, Jewish people read an enormous amount," my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent said before my book launch. "We really love books."

I’d had the good fortune of hearing authors speak at the Jewish Community Center in Greater Boston many times; I very much wanted the chance to participate as an author.

What do you think it was about your book/yourself that made the JBC audience respond to you?

My book The Murderer's Daughters is about sisters who witness their father kill their mother, and how their life unfolds for the next thirty years. Everyone seemed eager to discuss the reality of domestic violence in Jewish families — so long a forbidden topic. In addition, everyone opened up about the ways in which sisters — any siblings — respond so differently to the same family events, almost as though they’d been raised in different homes.

And, as always in great Jewish events, no matter how grim the topics, we found plenty of ways to find pockets of humor. There was plenty of laughing in my sessions, especially when I talked about publishing my first novel after the age of fifty.

What was your favorite experience on tour?

I grew up with a slight case of anomie, surrounded by a cultural belief that all-things-Jewish equals families-pushing-one-towards-great-achievement, while, among other family oddities, my grandmother taught me to shoplift. I was unclear what being Jewish meant or if I belonged.

Then I participated in the author’s tour. How to describe the feeling of walking into these fantastic Jewish community centers filled with readers eager to hear from you? I felt as though I were finally meeting every aunt, uncle, and cousin I'd ever wished for. Warmth and love was present everywhere.

What do you remember as the most thought-provoking or insightful question/comment you received from an audience member?

In Columbus, an audience member questioned what could be done to prevent domestic violence, which engendered a discussion about the importance of educating boys, as much as girls, about the importance of emotional and physical violence-free relationships. A healthy debate about the age to start teaching children about these issues provided, I believe, a forum for parents and educators to think about how to best bring these discussions to schools and their homes.

You’re working on a second book now. Did you feel that your experience on tour has, in any way, influenced your writing?

My second book, The Comfort of Lies (the story of three women connected by a child from a past infidelity), is finished and releasing in January 2013, from Atria Books. I’d already written most of the book before I was on tour.

Do you have any advice for authors about to go on book tour of any kind?
Anything you wish you’d known? Any favorite airports?

Pack light, in no more than two colors that all mix and match each other, have a pair of comfortable shoes to slip into, and always have almonds mixed with raisins in your bag. Layer, layer, layer outfits. Black dresses, colorful scarves.

Airports? When switching planes, know the route from one terminal to the next!

Funniest experience on tour?

In St. Louis, unbeknownst to us, they were trying out new onstage chairs: round, high, and with rotating cupped seats, Alyson Richman (author of The Lost Wife), Ellen Futterman (moderator of the panel, editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light) and I perched up in these seats and began twirling around.

Alyson tried to keep her dress from popping open, and I, too short for the chair, was desperate to stay facing the audience, rather than addressing the back of the stage. I guess our plight was all too apparent — within a short time they rescued us by bringing up regular chairs.

Did you find that most of the questions related to craft/writing or to thecontent/subject of your work?

Most of the questions were related to the content of my book and how my life influenced writing my novel.

Best post-reading after-party?

Past a certain hour, I am incredibly boring. The only after-partying I did was allowing myself to have room service.

Alicia Oltuski's Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life is now available.

Writers are Readers

Tuesday, March 06, 2012 | Permalink
Alicia Oltuski is the author of Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life. Alicia toured through Jewish Book Council's Jewish Book Network this past year and will be blogging here all week for JBC and MyJewishLearning.

Sometimes, standing in line for airport security toward the beginning of my book tour, I felt I knew what my ancestors experienced on Ellis Island — you know, minus the fumigations and crushing anxieties about how they would ever make it in this country. (I use the term ‘ancestors’ loosely here.) Excepting a supply of what I’d like to think of as shrewdly dispersed contact lenses, I had not packed well.

I’ve always thought of my profession as nothing like my father’s. Throughout much of mychildhood, he earned his living as a traveling diamond merchant. Last summer, though, as I began touring for my first book, Precious Objects, my job began to resemble his just a little bit more.

When I was young, my family ascribed a sense of solemnity to travel. Baggage claim was something grave and sobering. The women would step aside and wait for my father and grandfather to push through the throngs and tug at our suitcases, sometimes faltering and being pulled along the conveyer belt for one terrifying moment before they got the better of gravity and lifted the mammoth thing from the belt. I watched as they threw their weight into it, like a sport.

Our job (my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my sisters’, and mine) was to try and spot our bags, which we did by looking for black, nondescript suitcases with ribbons my grandmother had tied around the handle, as had every other traveler. Our other job (my mother’s, my sisters’ and mine) was to prevent my four-foot ten-inch grandmother from crossing the line from waiters to luggers to try and help with the heavy lifting.

I myself am actually a relaxed traveler. Having spent a few years commuting for work and school, I’m used it. And now, after more than thirty events in about twenty cities, I’m even more used it. I’m so used to it that when I had a late-night layover in a time zone different from both my departure and arrival cities, which coincided with a run of three different events in three different states, I didn’t tell everyone about it. Only the lady at the boarding counter. She clearly cared a lot.

Since that first tour stop, I’ve also managed to pick up on a host of traveling tricks—for example, that the C-line on Southwest is something like the lowest level of the Titanic. (This is actually not true; the C-line has landed me in a seat between two of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and who were more than generous vis-à-vis armrests.)

I learned that when you travel a lot your hair smells like a different flower in every city, owing to the array of hotel bath products.

I learned that after a full week of consecutive travel, I do not look like my author photo.

I learned that no one does not have an iPad.

But most importantly, I learned that everywhere, in every city, there are readers.

Passionate, enthusiastic, razor-sharp readers. I feel hugely grateful to the Jewish Book Council and to everyone who’s been having me over at their community centers, book stores, libraries, and clubs for allowing me to meet an incredible and eclectic sample of bibliophiles. This is amazingly heartening for a writer, and not just because it implies the possibility of an audience, but much more so, because writers love readers. Writers are readers.

My favorite thing to think about every time I get on a plane is that all over the country, there are millions of people who read in between job shifts, who get together to talk about books; people who can’t help themselves, people don’t want to help themselves. And I love them for it.

Alicia Oltuski's Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life is now available.

Book Cover of the Week: A Century of Wisdom

Monday, March 05, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It's the week of Alice! In this week's book recommendation email we feature Alice's Piano: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer (Melissa Müller and Reinhard Piechocki), which will be published on March 13th by St. Martin's Press. And now, in our book cover of the week series, we feature A Century of Wisdom: Lessons from the Life of Alice Herz-Sommer, the World's Oldest Living Holocaust Survivor (Caroline Stoessinger), which will be published by Spiegel & Grau on March 20th:

At 108 years old, the pianist Alice Herz-Sommer is an eyewitness to the entire last century and the first decade of this one. She has seen it all, surviving the Theresienstadt concentration camp, attending the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, and along the way coming into contact with some of the most fascinating historical figures of our time. As a child in Prague, she spent weekends and holidays in the company of Franz Kafka (whom she knew as “Uncle Franz”), and Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, and Rainer Maria Rilke were friendly with her mother. When Alice moved to Israel after the war, Golda Meir attended her house concerts, as did Arthur Rubinstein, Leonard Bernstein, and Isaac Stern. Today Alice lives in London, where she still practices piano for hours every day.

Despite her imprisonment in Theresienstadt and the murders of her mother, husband, and friends by the Nazis, and much later the premature death of her son, Alice has been victorious in her ability to live a life without bitterness. She credits music as the key to her survival, as well as her ability to acknowledge the humanity in each person, even her enemies. A Century of Wisdom is the remarkable and inspiring story of one woman’s lifelong determination—in the face of some of the worst evils known to man—to find goodness in life. It is a testament to the bonds of friendship, the power of music, and the importance of leading a life of material simplicity, intellectual curiosity, and never-ending optimism.

Purim Picks

Friday, March 02, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Prepare for Purim with a few good reads:


Finding My Religion

Friday, March 02, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Michelle Haimoff discussed her unlikely in-laws and having immigrant parents, baby boomers, and parental expectations. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I went to a Modern Orthodox elementary school. For eight years I learned Hebrew (Modern and biblical), participated in Shabbat Onegs and wrote and performed Torah-related songs and plays. I learned every Jewish prayer by heart, wore only below-the-knee skirts and painstakingly studied Talmud in Aramaic in a rabbi’s study. I was impressively Jewish. And then I went to a secular high school and, except for going to temple on the high holidays, attending Passover Seders and lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, I became unimpressively secular. It wasn’t until I met my Catholic-raised husband that I started actively observing Judaism again.

On our first date I told him that if we were to ever have kids, raising them as Jews was nonnegotiable. That’s right, our first date. Religion had come up in previous relationships and I had learned to be firm about what I wanted at the start to avoid surprises later. He nodded and said he would be comfortable with that. Ben believed in the general ritual and ethical guidance of religion even more than he believed in the specifics of his religion. Apparently the extent of two people’s religious belief can affect compatibility more than the religions themselves.

The first thing we decided to do was learn about Judaism together. We signed up for a four month Union for Reform Judaism course. I joked that I could teach it, but once it started I was surprised at how little I already knew. Reform Judaism was everything I had sifted from my Orthodox education without the orthodoxy that had felt so oppressive to me. The liberal politics, reverence for nature and inclusiveness of the community paralleled my own belief system, and Ben and I marveled at how time and again, the laws of Reform Judaism were laws we would create for ourselves if we were creating a religion from scratch. Our class was white, black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay and straight. We were all there, not by obligation, but by spiritual choice.

Perhaps because of my Orthodox background, I had always been dismissive of other branches of Judaism. I had also become so fixated on the technicalities of being Jewish (matrilineage, for example) that I forgot that religion is a philosophy, and we don’t automatically know or believe in a philosophy just because we’re born into it. If I had simply married another unobservant Jew, we wouldn’t have had to earn our Judaism, it would have already been part of our identities. But Ben and I worked for it, reading, debating and journaling every topic, theme and ritual, from the holidays, to the state of Israel, to the afterlife. I had always assumed that if I were to marry someone who wasn’t Jewish he would take on my religion as his own, but I never realized that in that process of learning about Reform Judaism I would take on a new religion as my own too.

Michelle Haimoff's debut novel, These Days Are Ours, is now available. She is is a writer and blogger whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post. She is a founding member of NOW New York State’s Young Feminist Task Force and blogs about feminist issues at

Women's History Month

Thursday, March 01, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

March is Women's History Month. Celebrate with a few of the important Jewish women who have truly made a difference and view the complete list here.

JBC Bookshelf: Journeys

Thursday, March 01, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Each of the following books focus on a journey. They represent both physical and spiritual journeys and geographically span the globe. These books take us from the haunting images of concentration camps, to a family's bicycle adventure across the country, to Rabbi Nachman's gravesite in Uman, to Debra Spark's stories that blur the line between reality and fiction, the real and the surreal. As we approach Passover next month, and retell the biblical journey of the Jewish people from slavery, it's fitting that these contemporary works remind us to continue the journey to understand our own Jewishness, where we come from and where we're going, the importance of retelling the stories of the past, and to never stop asking questions.

Fragments: Architecture of the Holocaust: An Artist's Journey Through the Camps, Karl Koenig and Kathleen V. Jameson (January 2012, Fresco Fine Art Publications) 
Through a series of photographs of concentration camps, Karl explores narrative and visual dissonances in order to highlight the inexplicability of the Holocaust itself.

The Bar Mitzvah and the Beast: One Family's Cross-Country Ride of Passage by Bike, Matt Bier-Ariel (April 2012, The Mountaineers Books)
How many gallons of Gatorade does it take to make it cross-country? Apparently 99.

The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories, Debra Spark (April 2012, Four Way Books)

Check back here the week of April 23rd for Debra's guest blog posts for the Visiting Scribe

A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful, Gideon Lewis-Kraus (May 2012, Riverhead Books)
Find out what happens when Gideon travels with 40,000 Orthodox Jews to visit the gravesite of a Hasidic mystic in the Ukraine.

Discover Nathan Englander on Twitter

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Our next Twitter Book Club is only 28 days away, so if you haven't already picked up a copy of Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, now is a good time to do so! To participate in the conversation, follow #JBCBooks and jump in at any time with your own questions or comments (but don't forget to include #JBCBooks on your tweet!). In the meantime, a few of Nathan's most memorable tweets of the last several weeks:

The Unlikely In-Laws

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michelle Haimoff discussed having immigrant parents, baby boomers, and parental expectations. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The hardest thing about breaking up with the Jewish guy I dated six years ago was breaking up with his parents. I loved his parents. His parents loved me. I knew that the guy and I would never be happy together, but I also knew that I would never find another set of parents who I connected with as much as his.

That fact hit me even harder the first time I met my future in-laws. Self-proclaimed “dyed in the wool Catholics,” they told me that they had never met a single Jew until their son (my now husband) went to college in the Northeast. They’re from Nebraska. A tiny little town called Broken Bow. It’s smack in the middle of the country, about three hours from the closest synagogue.

When I first realized that Ben was the man I was going to marry, I found myself mourning the loss of the in-laws I had always wanted. His parents didn’t effortlessly understand me. They didn’t appreciate that I could speak Hebrew and a few words of Yiddish. That I had gone to a yeshiva for elementary school and to Israel on my semester abroad. They had always fantasized about a Midwestern Catholic daughter-in-law. And I got it. I wanted my in-laws to be kvetching Upper West Siders.

But now, on the other side of the wedding, I find myself on the phone with Ben’s mom, lying on the quilt she handmade for us, happy to hear her laugh. Sometimes we make small talk (what we did that week, the joke she forwarded me, the weather), but just as often we’ll confide in each other about our bad days or trade family gossip. Like my connection to Ben, what we have in common goes beyond background.

It’s funny how people influence you in ways you don’t even realize. When we go shopping, Ben’s mom looks at the label of any item of clothing she likes to make sure it’s made out of natural fiber. This means no polyester, rayon or acrylic. I do this now, compulsively. Ben’s dad often starts sentences with the word “yes.” Like, “Yes, I told him I’d be happy to help him out.” And yes, it seems I picked that one up too.

I’d like to think I’ve also rubbed off on them. Ben’s mom often ends emails with “xo,” which Ben says she picked up from me, and during meals they order “for the table,” which is something my family always does but never thought was funny until Ben’s parents laughed at the expression and started using it themselves.

Falling in love is the easiest way to make the world smaller. Nebraska used to be a meaningless square on the map, as foreign to me as a village in Africa. But I’ve been there a number of times now and think of myself as someone with Nebraskan roots. I’ve also learned about the quilting process, how to make an alcoholic beverage called Gilligan’s Island, and how to be trusting without being naive. These weren’t the in-laws I had visualized, but I can’t imagine a more wonderful pair of machatanim.

Michelle Haimoff's debut novel, These Days Are Ours, is now available. She is is a writer and blogger whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Huffington Post. She is a founding member of NOW New York State’s Young Feminist Task Force and blogs about feminist issues at