The ProsenPeople

Short Friday

Friday, December 10, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Avi Steinberg wrote about Kafka in Tel Aviv and shared ahorribly embarrassing memo. His first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, was just released.

Winter Fridays in Jewish day school were the moments that made you proud to be of Israelite stock. I speak, of course, of early dismissal. Shabbes starts early, really early, and so the school day ends up being just a class or two in the morning—and one of those classes is Hebrew, which totally doesn’t count. For the uninitiated, Hebrew class in Jewish schools, at least where I went, is taught by some churlish Israeli mom who reeks of cigarette smoke and has neither the qualification nor the slightest inclination to teach the language. Typically, she would use Friday’s early dismissal as an excuse to whip out the accordion and have a sing-a-long.

I mention this by way of introduction. While I cannot offer you an accordion sing-a-long, I will, in honor of the great Jewish tradition of early Friday dismissal, be relatively brief.

I’ve been thinking of Jewish forms of writing. If you’re a big Jew, and you write on Jewish themes, people will eventually call you a “Jewish writer.” This seems sensible enough. But for the person who is a Jewish writer, the question of language will eventually tug at you. At some point, a Jew writing in a non-Jewish language will realize that this language is not quite his. I once referred to a person as “a Jew” in a story I was writing for a major American newspaper. As he was reviewing my article, the editor asked me, somewhat sheepishly, if the phrase “a Jew” was, perhaps, a tad derogatory. (He suggested something along the lines of “a Jewish person.”) This surprised me. It had never occurred to me that neutrally calling someone “a Jew” in a newspaper article was even remotely problematic. I told him as much. But he wasn’t imagining it: there is an ancient connotation of disdain in the English phrase, “a Jew,” a whiff of Christian contempt that goes back through the ages. Yehudi, the Hebrew word for Jew, by contrast, is devoid of any negative connotation.

For Anglo-American Jewish writers, the situation isn’t as tortured as it is for German Jewish writers. Kafka, reflecting on the flowering of Jewish-German writing in his day, wrote of “a gypsy literature which had stolen the German child out of its cradle and in great haste put it through some kind of training, for someone has to dance on the tightrope.”

While there is certainly a parallel here in English with what Bellow andRoth, among others, have done with English literature post WWII, the situation isn’t as fraught as it is for a Jew writing in German.

In fiction, certainly, the Jewish American dialect has asserted itself and made an imprint on the language as whole. But, what of other forms? Is there a Jewish-inflected criticism, a language of Jewish nonfiction, a native Jewish style in journalism? Because of this short winter Friday, I’m under no contractual obligation to answer these questions here. (Perhaps the “Short Friday Blog Post” is itself is a native Jewish form). Instead, I’ll let I.B. Singer take us into shabbes with his view of Jewish journalism:

Every week I write two or three journalistic articles…I can write articles in the Forward about life making sense or not, or that you shouldn’t commit suicide, or a treatise on imps or devils being in everything.

Avi Steinberg’s first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, was just released. He has been blogging all week for theJewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

War & Love, Love & War

Thursday, December 09, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Poet Aharon Shabtai’s latest collection, War & Love, Love & War, is now available. Words without Borders recently reviewed the title, calling it “[a] brilliant collection . . .contain[ing] specific moments of emotional complexity that are rarely found elsewhere.” Continue reading the review here. Read more from the publisher here.

On Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy

Thursday, December 09, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Rachel Swirsky, co-editor of People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy, blogs on Jewish identity and Jewish sci-fi/fantasy:

When I was eleven, I remember a boy my age asking, “So which is it? Are you an atheist or a Jew?” His tone was one of skeptical indignation. He was clearly intimating that he’d caught me in a lie because I’d described myself as both. The weird thing was that my perspective immediately flipped to his. Even as I explained that the situation was more complicated than either/or, that I was both Jewish and an atheist, I saw him as right. I saw myself as a liar.
Continue reading here.

Twitter Book Club: Blue Nude

Wednesday, December 08, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Join the Jewish Book Council and author Elizabeth Rosner in a live discussion of the novel Blue Nude on Wednesday, January 12th, 12:30 pm- 1:10 pm EST! Follow us @JewishBook and keep an eye on #JBCBooks for updates.

Publisher’s description: Born in the shadow of post-war Germany, Danzig is a once prominent painter who now teaches at an art institute in San Francisco. But while Danzig shares wisdom and technique with students, his own canvasses remain empty, for reasons he doesn’t understand. One day, he and his class begin sketching a new model, a young woman named Merav, the Israeli-born granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and herself a former art student. Danzig is immediately taken with her exceptional beauty, sensing that she may be the muse he has been missing. Challenged by Danzig’s German accent, Merav must decide how to overcome her fears. Before they can create anything new together, both artist and model are forced to examine the history that they carry.

Blue Nude recounts the events that bring Danzig and Merav together, including their disparate upbringings, their respective creative awakenings, and their similarly painful, often catastrophic, love lives. Using words to paint the landscapes of body and soul, Rosner conveys the art of survival, the complexity of history, the form of exile, the shape of desire, and the color of intimacy. Blue Nude is the narrative equivalent of a masterpiece of fine art.

Visit Elizabeth Rosner’s website for more.

What is a Twitter Book Club?

A twitter book club provides the opportunity for twitter users to engage in real time conversation about a particular, predetermined book. The “Twunch and Talk” aims to provide the tweeple with an opportunity to discuss Jewish interest titles with other interested readers electronically.

To participate…

If you aren’t already a Twitter user, please join twitter here. (Confused about Twitter all together? Visit the twitter twitorial. Follow the Jewish Book Council (@jewishbook). During the designated time and date of the “Twunch and Talk” (def Twunch: A loosely organized open invitation lunch meeting among twitter friends) follow the book club conversation by searching for #JBCBooks. If you would like to actively participate, please include #JBCBooks at the end of any comments or questions you wish to contribute.

(Note: New twitter users may have to wait up to a week before their tweets get saved in hashtag searches. Open a twitter account at least a week and a half before this discussion in order to join us!)

Read transcripts from past book clubs.

So pick up a copy of this month’s book club title, read it, and join us for a conversation online! If you have something to say or a question to ask, feel free to jump in, and don’t forget to include #JBCBook at the end of any tweet so that other participants can engage with you.

My Horribly Embarrassing Memo

Wednesday, December 08, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Avi Steinberg wrote about Kafka in Tel Aviv. His first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, was just released. Editor’s note: the following post utilizes what the Ashkenazi Jews call sarcasm.

It certainly has been a monumental few weeks in the history of humiliation. With the help of Wikileaks, we’re learning so many new things about our friends and neighbors. Who knew CNN’s Anderson Cooper dyed his hair white? Actually, to be honest, I had suspicions. All the signs were there. But still, there’s something startling about hearing him admit, and so bluntly, that he also uses a mirror to practice that signature move of his, the purposeful sidelong squint — and all of this preening just so he can look more like “serious newsman.” Anderson, you’re boyishly handsome. Just own it, babe.

But I don’t judge. I’ve got my own Wikileak grief. I present the following Wikileaked document, which involves, well, me. It catches me saying some things that I’m frankly not too proud of. Since it’s going to be circulating out there anyway, especially among Hasidic bloggers, I figure you might as well hear it from me first. It’s a memo from me to my book’s publicist. Oy, so embarrassing. Here it goes…

INTERNAL MEMO

Hey Gretchen!

Whazzzup. I write to you with a marketing concern. What can we do to–how do I put this–to fan charges of anti-semitism against my book? Does that make any sense? Let me back up. As you know, nobody from the Jewish community has accused my book of expressing anti-semitic sentiments. No reviewers, no interviewers. Nothing. I can’t even get a blogger to make a snarky comment on the subject. This is no good.

When my book came out, my mother’s main concern was, “will I still be able to show my face at the Butcherie?” At the time, I smugly advised her to stock up on Meal-Mart horseradish because she was never going to shop at the local kosher market ever again — not on my watch. Well, guess what? My mother shows her face at the Butcherie every Friday before Shabbes, like nothing happened. Even the surly Russian checkout lady seems entirely unaffronted. And my mother, meanwhile, feels comfortable enough to kvell about the book as she waits in line. WTF? How is word of my self-hatred ever going to spread this way? I swear, I’m never going to sell books in the Jewish community.

Now, I know what you’re going to say: It’s your fault, Avi. You had your shot. Why didn’t you write a book with more anti-semitic content? You went kind of light there in that chapter about Orthodox weddings. So, big deal, you got punched in the face during an out-of-control hora. It was an accident. And, as you say, you deserved it anyway. There wasn’t even that much blood. You wanna write a blood libel, show me some blood. Give me some of that thick red stuff, kid. A pint, half, anything. Some of that good Jim Caviezel vintage, then we’ll talk.

All true. But here’s the thing, Gretchen. You’re very gentile. It’s wonderful, but there’s something you don’t understand. Being called anti-semitic by the tribe is like getting whistled at by construction workers. Yes, it’s irritating. But then, one day, when they stop doing it, you’re like, “What, I’m invisible here? You don’t even care about me?” The anti-semitism accusation is a shout-out. It’s a form of affection. It doesn’t make your day exactly, but the absence of it is worse than excommunication.

I wish you could have been there for the good old days, back when I’d be accused of anti-semitism in the “comments” sections of articles I’d written, denounced on Facebook. I hardly had to lift a finger. I guess there’s no use living in the past. But, yeah, I’ll be honest, I’m kind of hurt nobody thinks I’m a self-hating Jew.

My last hope is that the Jews aren’t buying the book because it’s too anti-semitic. I know, I know, how foolishly romantic of me. In reality, I know it’s because they’re cheap.

Anyway, I hope your Christmas tree shopping is going well. Mine is kind of, eh, blah. So hard to find one at a reasonable rate, no? I say to the tree guy, “So, how much for a tree?” “$85,” he says. And I say, “$85?” And he says, “Yeah. $85. Do you want the tree or not?” “$85,” I reply, “is $85.”

Maybe if my fellow Jews weren’t so stingy, I’d have enough money for a proper Christmas celebration. I hope you’re having better luck. And, seriously, if you have any ideas about raising my anti-semitic profile, let me know.

Yours in Christ,
Avrum Steinberg

Avi Steinberg’s first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, was just released.

J Lit Links

Tuesday, December 07, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Goodreads Choice Awards

Tuesday, December 07, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Goodreads, the largest social network for readers (over 4 million members), has opened the polls for its 2010 readers’ choice awards. Out of the 47 million books added to the site in 2010, Goodreads has selected 15 in 23 categories, based on user ratings and popularity stats.

Mitchell James Kaplan, a Jewish Book NETWORK author and recent guest for our Twitter Book Club, has had his book nominated! By Fire, By Water, Kaplan’s debut novel set in Inquisition-era Spain, is up for best Historical Fiction.

Voting is open until the end of the month.

A Young Adult Literary Paradise

Tuesday, December 07, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Have you heard about Figment?

The literary community site for teens just launched yesterday and is what The New York Times describes as “an experiment in online literature, a free platform for young people to read and write fiction, both on their computers and on their cellphones. Users are invited to write novels, short stories and poems, collaborate with other writers and give and receive feedback on the work posted on the site.”

Read the full story here or head straight over to Figment.com.

The Pit of Tel Aviv, A Preliminary Damage Report

Monday, December 06, 2010 | Permalink

Avi Steinberg’s first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

I was on a roll with my manuscript, a prison library memoir, of all things, and then Kafka rolled into my life. Or rather, I rolled into his. At about the time I was finishing up my final edits for Running the Books—my fledgling first book—my life fell into the abyss described by the good Dr. Kafka:

“What are you building?” asks the man.
“I want to dig a subterranean passage,” the second man shouts back. And continues, “Some progress must be made. My station up there is way too high. We are digging the Pit of Babel.”

Directly under every proud edifice, under every act of creative ambition, is a pit that will—that must!—take the mission in precisely the opposite direction. My pit was, appropriately, located in Tel Aviv.

I was living in Jerusalem last year, minding my own business in the Valley of the Cross, that cozy nook, when suddenly I got wind of some excitement from the coast. A riotous legal controversy was unfolding over an archive of literary documents, including some undetermined amount of unseen work by Kafka. According to local reports, the papers were stashed in the Spinoza Street apartment of a notorious Tel Aviv cat lady. (The number of cats in the woman’s apartment, like the number of Kafka documents there, is unknown and possibly unknowable.)

The details of the case were of soap opera complexity. This cat lady, it turned out, was the daughter of the secretary—and probably lover—of Max Brod, Kafka’s good pal. Brod escaped Prague for Tel Aviv in 1939, and lived there until his death. The cat lady claimed that the papers, which may be valued in the millions of dollars, were her inheritance from her mother, who received the stash from Brod as a gift. The Israel National Library strenuously disagreed with the cat lady—while the Deutscher literary archive in Marbach, Germany totally disagreed with the Israel National Library. And everyone disagreed with Kafka, who, in about 1921, had politely requested that these papers be destroyed. And so a legal battle royale was going down in the Big Orange between the following parties, all of whom were entangled in shifting alliances with one another: the cat lady and her legal team; the cat lady’s sister and her legal team; the respective legal teams of the German and Israeli archives; an attorney from the State of Israel; and the court-appointed executors for the estates of the cat lady’s mom and Max Brod, respectively. Nobody who’s being honest with himself really knows how many lawyers are involved, not even the judge. This information, like the number of cats and Kafka documents in Spinoza Street apartment, is hidden somewhere in the Pit of Babel.

Looking for a break from my prison memoir, I decided to make a trip to Tel Aviv. I figured I’d take in the court proceedings as a form of entertainment. Compared to watching a Beitar Yerushalayim soccer game—whose fans’ interminable chant “Jerusalem War-fare!” gets old after about fifteen minutes and becomes panic-inducing after half-an-hour—the Kafka trial seemed like a fun diversion.

Wrong.

Given the space constraints of the blog form, and the limitations of human reasoning, not to mention propriety, I will say only this about what happened next, once my life intersected with Kafka’s. My life wasn’t ruined, per se. There’s a certain clarity to ruin. No, my life simply vanished, unceremoniously sucked into some vent in the Tel Aviv District Court, and hasn’t been seen since.

In theory, I’m wrong. A lot has happened in my life since then. I finished my book edits. My strange musings about Kafka’s final will were quoted in The New York Times. I moved back to the United States. My prison book came out and wasn’t a disaster (in a dream of mine, the great sage and perpetual bestselling author, Rashi, had foretold a publishing fiasco—thanks, Rashi).

On the surface, things seem fine. My body gets out of bed and does normal things. It brushes its teeth. It goes places like the gym, the supermarket, dinner parties, and aquariums. It finds its way into pet shops to play with cats. It gets excited when it receives the latest issue of Cat Fancy magazine. It walks down the street, stops in front of massage parlors, which is doesn’t enter. My body talks to disc jockeys about the authors who’ve influenced its writing. But it’s like none of it is happening. None of it feels real.

The real me is still sitting in the back row of the Kafka hearing, as untold hordes of black-robed lawyers shout at each other endlessly and accuse their opponents of desecrating the memory of the Holocaust. Each in turns looks at me, little old me, with suspicion. All the while, the judge sits there, appearing massively hung over, her chin propped up on her palm, observing the proceedings with lifeless eyes. Two feet behind her, visible through a window, a giant wrecking ball swings by. Then it swings by again, in the other direction, the force of its motion rattles the window horribly. A drill bears down above me, sending a small cloud of plaster onto my lap. The court’s official clock has stopped at 5:32. I swear this was how it was.

I regret to report, this is still how it is for me. And for all I know, how it may always be. Half a year later, I can make a preliminary assessment: I never really emerged from that courtroom. Maybe I was always there. It’s hard to say, so I won’t speculate just yet. But I might add, for the record, that whatever happened in there I don’t blame Franz Kafka. With all of his might, with his very life, he tried to warn me.

Avi Steinberg will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council andMyJewishLearning all week.

Carolyn Hessel on Jewish books

Thursday, December 02, 2010 | Permalink

Carolyn Hessel on the Jewish book that has most influenced her life:

What Jewish book has had its greatest influence on me? I believe the first step is to address the much discussed question: “what is a Jewish book?” A Jewish book is either one with overt Jewish content regardless of the author’s background or one with no obvious Jewish content but written by a Jewish author. Being a writer is such a personal endeavor: a Jewish person sees the world through Jewish eyes and writes with a Jewish pen. Continue reading…