The ProsenPeople

May is...

Tuesday, May 01, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of May celebrations, we've created a few reading lists for you...

Jewish American Heritage Month

Find the complete list here.


Short Story Month

Find the complete list here.


Mother's Day

Find the complete list here.



The Return of Eli Gershonson

Monday, April 30, 2012 | Permalink

Gerald Kolpan's newest book, Magic Words: The Tale of a Jewish Boy-Interpreter, the World's Most Estimable Magician, a Murderous Harlot, and America's Greatest Indian Chief, is now available. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

When you’re writing a novel, it’s often surprising how a character will insinuate himself into your story.

Sometimes they appear out of nowhere - as in the case of Prophet John McGarrigle, the clairvoyant Indian scout in my new novel, Magic Words. I was writing a passage in which one of my main characters, Julius Meyer, walks into an overheated shack seeking shelter from the cold. Inside that shack was Prophet John.

Sure, Julius was surprised, by not half as surprised as me. I had no idea who John was, what he was doing in that shack or why he was in my book. I had to write him to find out.

The story of Eli Gershonson, a Jewish peddler in the Old West, is just the opposite. He took a long and circuitous route to his supporting role in Magic Words.

Eli started life in my little son’s bedroom. He was part of an imaginary gang of “protectors” I would tell Ned about at bedtime; their job was to fight off his nightmares.

The group included the Bagel Man (the hero of a song I made up), the Guys Up The Street (some tough dudes who hung at 2nd & Kenilworth, our Philadelphia corner), and Eli Gershonson, Esq., a lawyer who would take the bad dreams to court if they dared bother my boy (nothing like a lawsuit to scare off Freddy Krueger).

It may sound a bit elaborate, but most nights, it worked.

Cut to 15 years later.

I was writing my first novel, Etta, and found myself in need of a name for a character – a Jewish peddler of the type who roamed the West by the hundreds at the turn of the century. By this time, my son was 21 and no longer needed a nightside attorney, so I appropriated Mr. Gershonson’s moniker, revoked his law degree and gave him a wagon filled with pots, pans, cloth, needles, pins and other chazerai. In the end, he appeared in less than two pages in the book, but that was all he needed to advance the plot.

I figured that was my farewell to Eli.

Then, in 2009, when I was writing Magic Words, I needed a name and background for another Jewish peddler who would be Julius Meyer’s uncle in the book. He needed to be patient, honest, and kind, but with a quiet authority.

I soon realized that the character I was envisioning had all of the qualities of the character I already had.

So, Eli Gershonson jumped from my first book to my second, pots and pan intact, though shedding some 30 years in the transition. In Magic Words, his part isn’t a page-and-a-half cameo, but a major role woven throughout the narrative. In fact, he’s one of the last characters we see in the book.

I’m thankful to Eli for allowing me to move him from one story to the next. His presence gave my two books a kind of crazy continuity, not to mention that I was afforded the great pleasure of getting to know him better.

Believe me, he’s a mensch.

Visit Gerald Kolpan's website for more about Magic Words and his first novel, Etta.

Acknowledging the Tenement Museum

Friday, April 27, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week Debra Spark wrote about meeting Adin Steinsaltz and why she makes her characters Jewish. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

These days, when people write a book, they invariably have an acknowledgments page, where they thank a few people or–like someone going on and on at the Oscars–everyone they ever knew, down to the babysitter who once braided their hair in elementary school. My own acknowledgements page for my most recent book thanks my first readers–the friends who commented on my stories in draft–and the artist colonies that offered me an extended time to write.

Now that I think about it, and think about it in terms of what really enabled me to do what I needed to do, I realize I should also have thanked New York’s Tenement Museum. The museum consists of a modern visitor center at 103 Orchard Street and a tenement at 97 Orchard that has been “restored”–or perhaps safely kept in its earlier dismal condition. The rooms have been furnished as they were during the years (1863-1935), when the tenement was occupied.

This may sound drearily like any number of museums, where you stand behind a rope while you look at a Victorian bedroom or see the trundle bed where Melville’s children slept. But it is nothing of the sort. Instead the tour guide who takes you into 97 Orchard Street (you can’t just wander alone) tells you the story of one of the immigrant families who once lived there. And at least some of those immigrants were Jewish.

The Museum gave me the very thing that I needed to write: a sense of the lived life, the specifics of daily existence. I have at times got buried in, and distracted by, my efforts at verisimilitude. I have tried to do research for books and only learned how much I don’t know, how there was no way I could write my book unless I had more courage, more of an ability to ask people who I didn’t know what their lives were like. But intruth you don’t need to know everything to write a story or novel. You just need enough to convince. In an interview on, the fiction writer Jim Shepard talks about the role of research in fiction this way:

Henry James said, ‘She had eyes like this and a nose like this.’ And you go, ‘I could really see her.’ You have two details! Theoretically you could do the same thing with the Battle of Antietam, right? If you get the right details. Part of the point of all that research is not, ‘Oh, I am going to be able to deploy more details.’ It’s that I am more likely to come across those two.”

What The Tenement Museum gave me were the details, ironically enough, to imagine where my characters lived. I only used two things from the visit to the Museum: a detail about where toilets were placed in a tenement and what the lay out of an apartment might be like, but, in my head, the whole world was quite vivid. I could see it all, and hopefully my readers can as well.

Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception. She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

The Novella

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled "The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread", in which Joe Fassler examines the role of the novella in the publishing industry ("...the 50,000-Word Abyss"), tipping a large hat to Melville House Publishing, the first publisher to publish a novella series (The Art of the Novella). Smitten by Fassler's final paragraph--his own definition of the novella--we thought we'd curate a reading list of novellas on our site, which you can find here.

Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yom Hazikaron is Israel's official Memorial Day. It's followed by Yom Ha'atzmaut ("Independence Day"), which commemorates Israel's declaration of Independence in 1948. The below titles focus on Israel through a variety of genres and perspectives. Find the whole list here.


Do My Characters Need to be Jewish?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Debra Spark wrote about meeting Adin Steinsaltz. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Should I show my husband my work? My sister? My mother? Students sometimes ask me this. Go ahead, I say. Just don’t be too eager to listen to your family members’ opinions about your fiction. Parents and siblings bring too much non-literary baggage to their reading, so they’re not the ones to turn to for clearheaded advice. Which is a shame, I’ll be frank, because my mother thinks I’m a genius. My siblings are kind (though not uniformly) about my work. There are a few comments, over the years, that hurt at the time, that pain me less in retrospect. Here’s one that just interested me. My mother read a few stories of mine (in draft) and then asked, “Why do all your characters have to be Jewish?” She wasn’t asking this about the stories where there was a clear answer. If the story concerned Jews on the Lower East Side or a rabbi (as two of the stories in my most recent collection do), then that was fine. What she was asking was about the other stories. The ones with no clear Jewish content, where I nonetheless had made the characters Jewish. The story about the faltering marriage in Baltimore, the one about the cousins living together in a Cambridge apartment when Vaclav Havel’s press secretary comes to visit? They didn’t have to be Jewish, did they?

And the truth is, no, they didn’t. There was nothing in the stories that necessitated me clarifying their cultural heritage or spiritual lives. Still, even if I did edit the explicit mention of Jewishness out, as I did in some cases--because my mother was right it really didn’t need to be there--the characters remained Jewish in my head.

Why, exactly? I could say that I have spent my whole life as a Jew, even if as a completely secular one, and that is the lens through which I see the world, but I have spent my whole life as a woman, and I find myself able to write from a man’s point of view. I have spent my whole life as an identical twin, and I only once wrote about a character who is an identical twin. I think it has more to do with the immediate kinship that I feel with some Jews, the sense that we share a sensibility. Intelligence, warmth, self-deprecating humor, liberal politics, rugelach, books, and black and white cookies occupy the same place in our hearts. Which is to say that we highly value them. OK, well, maybe not the black-and-white cookies, not for all Jews. I can see that might be a debatable point. And everyone doesn’t share my politics, I know. But you get the idea. There’s a certain coziness I feel with other Jews, and it’s a coziness I like to feel with my characters. My characters are in a quite literal way (of course) “my people.” So, no surprise, I suppose, that they should resemble my people in a larger sense, the ones I come from and the ones for whom I feel a special affection.

Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception. She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Book Cover of the Week: The Mile End Cookbook

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Mile End Cookbook: Redefining Jewish Comfort Food from Hash to Hamantaschen (Noah and Rae Bernamoff) will be published by Clarkson Potter in September:

Seeking Fact, Finding the Unknowable

Monday, April 23, 2012 | Permalink

Debra Spark's newest book, The Pretty Girl, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres—it’s in my most recent book, The Pretty Girl—and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theatre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.

I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my pleasure. I was dispirited. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in history, before I could write the book I intended. I was also anxious to get back to the Marriott in Swiss Cottage where I was staying. My mother and young son were waiting for me, and I knew my son would be impatient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extended separation.

It was late in the day when I finally got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the elevator, I saw a man in a yarmulke holding a clipboard. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be interested by my dip into history. I saw the words Adin Steinsaltz on the man’s clipboard. Now I had another reason I felt like speaking. “He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.

“What’s that?” the man said, interested.

The Thirteen Petalled Rose.”

“Do you understand that book?” the man said abruptly.

I had actually studied the book, which attempts to explain the Jewish mystical system that is kabbalah, fairly seriously at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. “I feel like if there are 100 levels on which to get that book, after reading it twice, I managed to get to level two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kindly or not, influence the structure of the universe. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the universe, and similarly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the potential to create the world as a better or worse place.

“Well, I tell the Rabbi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he introduced himself. He was Steinsaltz’s personal assistant.

I was shocked. The Steinsaltz book—and other books by Steinsaltz—had once been so important to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jewish such an Irish name. Somehow “Adin,” though I knew it was pronounced differently, made me think it would be OK after all.

It turned out that the Rabbi, who is known perhaps best for his translation of the Talmud, was speaking that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assistant said he could get me in. As exciting as this prospect sounded, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my mother. So the assistant offered something else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have coffee with him.

I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited. Later, I told Steve Stern, a Jewish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, “He’s a holy man!”

My meeting was brief. I was embarrassed by my secular self in front of the rabbi. I should have counted on not feeling quite frum enough to be meeting with him. I felt I should have a question for him, but I hadn’t prepared a question. I didn’t know what to say. He was gentle and kind, but I struggled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t so great. I ended up deciding to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had troubled me, since I reread it in preparation for taking my son to his first Purim celebration. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that afterward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 additional men. I asked the rabbi about it. The lack of clarity in the Book of Esther bothered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Persians have permission to attack Jews on a certain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are taking advantage of that permission, when the day comes.

“Well, you’ve never been beaten,” the rabbi said.


“If you were beaten, you’d understand.”

It seemed to me that we were talking about contemporary Israel and Palestine and not ancient Jews and Persians. Later I realized we probably were. I discovered that the rabbi’s politics were far to the right of my own. The other thing the rabbi said, though I can’t remember what we were talking about that led him to these words, is that he liked children, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wisdom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love children myself.

Why am I telling these stories?

Because the meeting with the Rabbi redirected me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, anticipating my morning coffee with the rabbi.

When we talk about fact and fiction in novel writing, I think we are frequently talking about direct borrowings from one’s own autobiography. For me, fact works in a more complex way in my fiction.

I never wrote that book about toy theatres, the one I planned to write when I went to London. Instead, I wrote a novel, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explicit use of the Rabbi’s words about being beaten. I also wrote a story for my subsequent book, The Pretty Girl, called “A Wedding Story.” In it, a rabbi says what Steinsaltz said about children, and the character who hears his words stumbles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.

I couldn’t understand enough about the facts of the Victorian world, so I couldn’t write the novel I intended to. I couldn’t understand the Rabbi’s thinking, and so I found a story I did feel I could write. Stupidity, you could say, stopped me, and stupidity led me forward. Different kinds of stupidity. To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.

Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception. She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. 

Primordial Slush

Friday, April 20, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ramona Ausbel talked about what she is, a mother, and what she isn't, an actress. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Join JBC on May 22nd for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Ramona. Follow #JBCBooks to participate.

Several years ago at a writing conference, I was listening to a panel of agents and editors talk about how to get published. They had advice about query letters and first chapters and whether or not to compare yourself to Nobel Prize winning authors. A man stood up and said, “How long should a novel be? I don’t want to have to write this thing again and again, so I’d appreciate it if you just told me what you wanted right up front.” I could feel everyone in the room sigh for this man, but of course, we all knew what he meant. Why is this so hard, I’ve thought a million times. You read a great book and it feels effortless, like the writer just knew how to tell that story. All of us in that room wanted to know how to tell our stories, too.

My first novel took eight years and seventeen drafts. I wanted to believe that it would be easier the second time around, but I was wrong. It might even be harder, because I know exactly how long the road is. But I am not complaining. No one is forcing me to write — if I hated this (OK, sometimes I do hate it. A lot. But then I love it again later) I could stop. I understand that starting is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first your fourth book, you are always in the dark. Also — a reminder to my future self—it’s not just the beginning that’s difficult. The middle, oh the middle is a test. And finishing? Dear God!

These days I am working on something new. I did the math again, tried to make a deal with myself to write a certain number of pages a day. I dreamed of having a draft by the time my son was born in November. I had a lot of pages, but I did not, by any stretch, have a draft. When people ask me what I’m working on I tell them I don’t know yet since it is still in the primordial slush phase and has not yet sprouted legs and crawled up onto land. I have been saying that for a year. Still no legs. And that has to be OK, because that is what’s true. I still hope that in a matter of years, and I do realize that it will be years and not months around, I will be able to walk back out of this room having showered and put on respectable clothing with a readable manuscript in my hands. But that time is not now. Now, I need to close the door and kneel down in the mud. I have to have faith that something is growing here, even if it is just a single-celled organism, slippery and legless.

Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us with the collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born to follow. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker,One Story, the Green Mountains Review, pax americana, The Orange Coast Review, Slice and collected in The Best American Fantasy and online in The Paris Review.

The Hebrew Translator on Translation

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | Permalink

In our April JBC Bookshelf, we featured a pdf version of an article that first appeared in the summer 2007 issue of Jewish Book World. We thought it would be a good idea to breathe new life into it by adding the text here, as well. This article was written by Jessica Cohen, the translator of two of the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize awardees: Choice Award winner Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust and Finalist Yael Hedaya's Accidents. In each summer issue we feature words from the current year's Sami Rohr Prize honorees, and in 2007, in lieu of Jessica Cohen having translated two of the honored titles, we asked her to contribute to the section:

When I think of all the translators I have met since entering this fascinating profession, I cannot call to mind any who knew they wanted to be translators when they grew up. Most of us seem to have past lives—and often parallel ones—in other fields or entirely different professions, and many came to translation in roundabout ways. The common denominator among translators is, of course, an intimate knowledge of at least two languages. (Many translators are purely bilingual, although this is by no means requisite, and conversely, being bilingual does not necessarily make one a good translator.) Translators also possess an ability, and a drive, to constantly travel back and forth between their two languages and the cultural worlds they represent, and to build bridges so that others can follow.

My own case is no exception. I was born in England and moved to Jerusalem with my family at the age of seven. In Israel, I spoke Hebrew in school and almost everywhere else, but continued to speak English at home and often spent time in English-speaking countries. I also got into the habit of reading almost exclusively in English, much to the chagrin of my Hebrew literature teachers, which contributed significantly to my English-language writing facility. I studied English literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and after moving to the U.S., I studied Middle Eastern literature and languages at Indiana University. This seeming contradiction—the constant peering into one culture while being immersed in another—is part of my identity, and now a central element of my chosen career. Like many immigrants and cultural transplants, I feel compelled to keep one foot in each culture, and to pursue the frustrating goal of bringing them closer to one another. And since literature is, to my mind, the greatest and most telling reflection of a culture and the repository of its language, what better way to achieve this reconciliation than to introduce the literature of one culture into another?

One of the paradoxes of being a literary translator is that the less attention we draw to ourselves, the better our work probably is. When I translate a book, my job is to find a way to convey the author’s style and voice. Ideally, the readers of my English translation will have the same experience as the readers of the Hebrew original. Geri Gindea, Director of the Sami Rohr Prize, recently commented on how surprised she was upon realizing that I had translated two of the finalists for the Sami Rohr Prize (Amir Gutfreund, winner of the Choice Award for Our Holocaust, and Yael Hedaya, Honorable Mention for Accidents), because the two books employ such very different styles. I took this as a compliment: if Yael Hedaya and Amir Gutfreund sound nothing like each other in English, then I did my job well, because they have very distinctive voices and disparate narrative styles in Hebrew.

Alongside these two young and exciting authors, I have also had the honor of translating a literary giant like David Grossman (Her Body Knows). Since Mr. Grossman has had many previous works translated into English and his reputation is well established, the challenge of retaining his unique voice was all the more daunting. I have also translated non-fiction works, such as the forthcoming book by Tom Segev (1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East), which presented a challenge of a different sort: it is important to convey the fluid narrative style that is the mark of a good non-fiction writer, yet the primary objective in translating nonfiction must be to retain the clarity of the information and the author’s arguments.

Whatever I happen to be translating on a given day—a love story, a family saga, childhood recollections, or historical analysis—I strive to carry across into my translation not only the literal meaning of the words, but their cultural weight, their allusions, the imagery and emotions they evoke. This is rarely an easy task, and not always attainable, and every so often I have to accept that some things must be lost in translation. I am also aware that, much as no two writers will ever tell a story the same way, there are often infinitely varied ways of translating a line or even a single word. Finding the perfect turn of phrase brings a sense of satisfaction that all translators look forward to, and the search itself provides an opportunity to delve deeper into language and meaning, which is a part of my work that I relish. The first-rate writers I have been fortunate to work with, and the creative negotiation between different languages, cultures, and ways of looking at the world, make for an engaging and everchanging occupation.

Jessica Cohen has translated the following titles on the JBC website:

1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, Tom Segev
Accidents, Yael Hedaya
Eden, Yael Hedaya
Our Holocaust, Amir Gutfreund
The World a Moment Later, Amir Gutfreund
To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Find out more about Jessica by visiting her website: The Hebrew Translator.