The ProsenPeople

Becoming an Anthologist

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Ron Rubin wrote about visiting the Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union and Peri Devaney wrote about working on the Postcript for her anthology, A Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty-Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin (Syracuse University Press). Today, Peri discusses organizing the material for the anthology. Peri and Ron will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Thank G-d for Excel!

Having worked with Ron Rubin in an editing capacity since 2003, I thought I was well aware of how prolific a writer he was when he asked me if I would put together an anthology of his works. And then came the boxes of newspapers, magazines, journals and other various and sundry periodicals.

And then came the emails with e-versions of his more current articles, and an occasional new article showing up even after I started working with the material.

As I said in my earlier blog, political science and history are just not my bailiwick. So how was I to get through, select, and organize as much of this material as possible into an interesting anthology focusing on topics related to Judaism and Israel?

One article, op-ed, book review, paper and letter to the editor at a time, I skimmed through it all and created an Excel spreadsheet with columns for listing where the piece fit in Rubin’s biographical timeline, the date of publication, the piece’s primary subject and secondary subject, its title, the name of the periodical that published it including the name of the column when applicable, and the type of article.

Eighty-seven pieces in all were listed, with about sixty of them clearly fitting into the Jewish theme. It was the remaining twenty-odd pieces that stumped me. Did an editorial Ron Rubin wrote in 1961, as the NYU daily newspaper’s editor-in-chief, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the campus fit in? Was the fact that he was a prominent supporter of Israel and Soviet Jewry, a fact not mentioned in Ron’s editorial, enough? (My decision on that one was “no.”)

In addition to topical considerations, I also needed to keep in mind the publisher’s “400 page, courier font, 1.5-spaced” maximum manuscript size, so it was time to start OCR scanning and formatting the resulting Word documents to see just how many manuscript pages the printed material translated to. (This was not an easy job considering the age and condition of much of the material, and the fact that most of it was in either oversized publications or magazines that wouldn’t lay flat for a clean scan.)

And then the fun began. I had to read all of the articles, one by one, word by word, or should I say letter by letter, first to proofread the scans and fix all the l’s that scanned in as 1’s, rn’s that scanned as m’s, w’s that became double v’s, and so on—and then to actually get to know the material. To this day I’m not sure if the OCR scanning was easier than typing in all of the material or not, but I do know that although I did find some of the material a big yawn, a lot of it was actually quite interesting.

Next came the job of getting reprint permissions to include the material I wanted to use—a topic that could warrant its own blog or two or three! As noted in my Acknowledgements, only one publication (not named) gave me any trouble, the rest willingly granting the permissions and waiving (or, in one case, greatly reducing) their normal reprint fees.

In the end I was able to include sixty-seven of Ron’s pieces in the anthology, four of them in abridged form, two summarized, and one intact except for one large section I needed to research and rewrite because of the permissions problem. By now I was getting the hang of online research and found the re-written section at least as good as the quote it replaced.

Figuring out order and presentation turned out to me easier than anticipated once it was all in the spreadsheet. I simply put the material in order using Ron’s biographical timeline and the articles’ topics. And so came to being:

  • “Part One: The University Student, 1957-1965,” featuring Ron’s editorials from the Heights Daily News and material he wrote during grad school;
  • “Part Two: A Young Professor in a Young School, 1965–1969,” including a chapter on “The Plight of Soviet Jewry” which is the topic of one of Ron’s blogs;
  • “Part Three: An Established Professor and Author-At Home and Abroad, 1970s and 1980s,” with more on Soviet Jewry and much more;
  • “Part Four: The Turn of the Century, 1990–2008;”
  • “Part Five” (which is actually called “Conclusion”); and
  • the “Postscript” discussed in my last blog.

Putting together this anthology might just make me politically-minded after all!

Check back all week for more from Peri Devaney and Ron Rubin.

Am I a Jewish Writer or a Writer Who Happens to Be Jewish?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013 | Permalink

This week, Ellen Feldman, the author of several books, blogs for The Postscript on her thoughts about being a Jewish writer. The Postscript series is a special peek "behind the scenes" of a book. It's a juicy little extra something to add to a book club's discussion and a reader's understanding of how the book came together. 

To "host" Ellen at your next book club meeting, request her through JBC Live Chat

Recently, when talking to a women’s group of a New York City temple, one of the members asked if my next book would have a Jewish theme.  Before I could answer, another woman said, “Of course, it will.  She’s a Jewish writer.” 

I dislike being pigeonholed as a writer.  I abhor the term woman writer.  I write differently from a man, but I also write differently from women writers who have experiences, backgrounds, temperaments, and passions unlike mine.  I detest the term historical fiction writer.  I write novels about individuals and the times in which they live, but these stories reflect my own struggles with the issues of the era in which I write.  And I’m not fond of the term Jewish writer, because I think it implies that I am interested only in Jewish stories and that only Jews will be interested in the stories I tell. 

Nonetheless, I am Jewish, and I won’t for a moment deny that my being Jewish informs everything I write.   My most pointedly Jewish book is The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank.  It is the story of a specific American post-Holocaust experience, but it is also my own story of growing up Jewish in a particular time and place. 

When I decided to write Scottsboro, I wanted to explore the horror of racism in America, but the fact that anti-Semitism mingled with racism in a virulent brew that exploded across the country and around the world like a Molotov cocktail made the story both more horrible and more personal to me. When I began writing my most recent novel, Next To Love, I was not thinking about particular Jewish experiences.  The novel is based on the stories with which I grew up, and many of the characters reflect people I knew or heard about.  But once again, my Jewishness intruded, and an important subplot of the book is the way Jews were treated and the strides they made in post-World-War-II America. 

My new book, The Unwitting, which will be published in the spring of 2014, did not begin as a Jewish novel, but I found the story made emotional sense only if one of the main characters was a Jew.  I suspect the fact was in the back of my mind before it reached the page. 

Often novelists don’t know what they’re really writing about until they’re well into the book.  They know plot and character, setting and scenes, but they may not recognize the underlining passion or hunger that is driving them to write that particular book.   At least that has been my experience.   I don’t set out to  write books with Jewish themes, but that is frequently the result because my experiences are Jewish, my world view is Jewish, and the blood that begins to pulse faster when I get excited about telling a story is Jewish.   Officially, I think of myself as a writer who happens to be Jewish, but I have a feeling my subconscious thinks of herself as a Jewish writer.

Ron Rubin on Visiting the Soviet Union

Tuesday, July 23, 2013 | Permalink

Yesterday, Peri Devaney wrote about working on the Postcript for her anthologyA Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty-Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin (Syracuse University Press). Today we hear from Ron Rubin, the prolific professor she anthologized. Peri and Ron will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve had four opportunities to visit the Soviet Union/Former Soviet Union over the years, the fourth being the trip I’m preparing for as I write this blog that JBC will be posting online while I’m physically there.

Each trip had a different setting, successively bringing me closer to my Jewish brethren. In looking back I realize how fortunate it was that along the way I was never thrown out!

My first trip, as a twenty-six-year-old single in 1968, was mainly exploratory. I wanted to check out the terrible press reports, leave behind some Jewish books, and instill some hope. In this pre détente era when tourism between the USA and the Soviet Union was virtually unknown, I signed up with the Dutch Student Travel Organization, NBBS, for a two week all-expenses-covered trip costing $250. I was the only Jew and the only American among the thirty travelers. The railroad that left Amsterdam took two days and nights to reach our first stop, Minsk. At the intersection between the two Germanys, bloodhounds came on board to search. Crossing Poland, I recognized the names of towns like Bialystok, well known in Jewish history. Were these the same tracks used a quarter century earlier to bring Jews to the concentration camps, I wondered?

The student hostel in Minsk was so primitive that the toilets contained no running water. We were shown the local concentration camp site where, I told myself, there was a good chance some of my father’s father’s relatives perished. Our guide helped me arrange for private taxis to take me to synagogues in the three cities we visited, Minsk, Leningrad and Moscow, where I surreptitiously left behind some Judaica and tried to make myself understood using Yiddish and Hebrew.

On my next trip, in 1973, I accompanied a New York State Congressman as his “expert” advisor. By then my book on Soviet anti-Semitism, The Unredeemed, had been released, but fortunately Soviet surveillance was not keeping abreast of the American publishing industry. Ostensibly, our mission was research on the excellent record of the USSR in preventing crime, but we were really there to raise the issue of Jewish suffering at the highest levels. In addition to secretly meeting refuseniks, we explained to the Mayor of Moscow and officials of the Soviet fisheries ministry how relations between the two superpowers were being hurt by differences over the Soviet Jewish issue. They seemed surprised at the connection, but at least we got through to them. Our biggest success was meeting the head of OVIR, the police unit in charge of emigration. Not only were we the first Americans to meet that official, but he accepted a list containing the names of ten refuseniks, a diplomatic nicety he didn't need to do. Six months later, one of the refuseniks listed was given permission to leave for Israel.

The parameters of my third trip were clearly supply and inspiration. Sponsored by the Chabad Lubavitch organization, Lishkas Ezras Achim, two young rabbis and I spent two weeks there. We brought few personal effects, but at a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights our suitcases were stuffed with Jewish books and sundry ritual items ranging from Shechitah (kosher slaughter) knives, kosher yeast and burial shrouds. On the plane, we spoke seriously of the possibility that our goods would be confiscated at Soviet customs and that we could be either thrown out of the country or arrested. On that trip I saw one of the young rabbis secretly circumcise an adult male who was lying on a simple table.

Recalling this heroic chapter in Jewish history, I want to make the point that God’s miracles are not limited to splitting the sea. Even the starriest optimist would not have predicted forty-five years ago that despite the most totalitarian regime in history, one million former Soviet Jews would now call Israel home, menorahs are now displayed in Red Square on Chanukah, and . . .

The purpose of my upcoming trip to Russia with the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) is to explore Jewish and Russian life in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and I plan to meet with leaders of both Jewish communities and to get an update from Chabad and other groups on their activities to strengthen and sustain Jewish life . . . something we can now do openly, because . . .

Miracles do happen today as well!

Check back all week for more from Ron Rubin and Peri Devaney.

Putting Myself on the Line

Monday, July 22, 2013 | Permalink

Peri Devaney’s new book, A Jewish Professor’s Political Punditry: Fifty-Plus Years of Published Commentary by Ron Rubin (Syracuse University Press), is now available. Peri and Ron, the prolific professor she anthologized, will be blogging here this week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

As a book editor, my work had always been behind the scenes. When Ron Rubin (an author I had previously edited for “behind the scenes”) asked me to come out from behind and have my name appear on the cover of an anthology of his works, I never considered the possibility I might wind up putting myself on the line.

As I understood it, my role as anthologist would be to cull through the anthologized’s published materials, decide which pieces fit the anthology’s theme, create “abridged” versions for some of the tangential works, organize the material in a sensible pattern, and write a preface and filler blurbs to provide a biographical background and help the reader move through the book.

All went as expected, the manuscript was submitted, and then …

Surprise!

A reviewer for the publisher’s acquisitions department gave the book a “thumbs up” but suggested adding a bridge between the last of Rubin’s published commentaries and the book’s production. Syracuse University Press’s editorial committee agreed, I discussed the idea of a “Postscript” with Dr. Rubin, and he informed me he would gladly help me write it.

Now it’s true I’ve been involved with three books written by political science professors—two of them on historical subjects and the third a more contemporary topic—but political science and history are just not my bailiwick. The research for those books was all done by the authors before I ever saw the manuscripts, and any fact-checking was done by the publishers’ editorial teams. My bachelor's degree in math, computer science and secondary education did not require much research … what little it did require was done more than forty years ago … and the only research I did as founding editor of an IT trade association’s magazine more than 20 years ago (when I was also the association’s Executive Director) involved brainstorming with the president to figure out what topics would interest our members and industry and which of our vendors, members and technical staff to approach to write the articles.

My bailiwick is the re-organization and re-writing of sentences, paragraphs and chapters originally written by others. I’ve taken a 600-page manuscript and without removing any content condensed it into the “maximum 400-pages” manuscript that publisher wanted by simply rearranging and rewording the material. I’ve printed out a 365-page manuscript in order to cut it up into sections—some as small as one sentence—so I could put the pieces together in a way that would grab the readers’ attention and keep them interested through to the end.

What writing I’ve done personally has been mostly for promotional, marketing or fundraising purposes; the few published articles I’ve written were based on personal experiences; and if I were to write a book myself, it would almost definitely be fiction, probably of the fantasy or mystery genre.

So the task of writing the Postscript to an anthology filled with fifty years of political commentary was daunting, to say the least.

Thank G-d for the internet … for the enormous amount of pro-Israel, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic “junk email” that came into my Outlook as then-administrator of a high-profile Jewish organization and gave me a good feel for the current atmosphere … for the emphasis the organization placed on critical thinking … and for Ron Rubin’s help. It was actually fun Yahoo!ing and Googling and sorting through the legit news sources and junk; linking to, reading, evaluating and quoting material from congressional and White House reports; delving into Knesset and IDF websites; and more. Once I finished writing the Postscript—“The Obama Years: On Whom Can We Rely?”—I realized I had enjoyed the accomplishment, but it was still quite nerve-racking to realize my personal political leanings, such as they are, would be in print for others to question, challenge or praise.

And then came the cuts! Both Ron and the publisher liked the piece, but what I considered one of my two most well-researched and creatively presented sections was taken out by the publisher completely. After a lot of explanation on their part, I sort of understand their concerns, but I think much of what they left in has an even greater potential to create a stir than what they took out. Sometimes it scares me to think about the exposure—I even thought about writing with a pseudonym—but for the good of the book…

I put myself on the line.

And now it’s on to the next project…

Check back all week for more from Peri Devaney and Ron Rubin.

Love Stories for Tu B'Av

Monday, July 22, 2013 | Permalink

We've spent all day discussing them at work and now we're sharing them with you! Our Tu B'av 5773 JBC staff picks:


"Two intertwined love stories make up  Meir Shalev's novel A Pigeon and a Boy, one story set in modern Israel, the other in 1948,  during Israel's war of independence. The war-time tale of tender, doomed young love is particularly poignant and brings this period to life from an unusual perspective." —CK

"Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels is more about the love between a father and his adopted son than about romantic love, although there's certainly that, too. At times reading more like a poem than a novel, Fugitive Pieces is about how we grow to love the people dropped on our doorstep, the people who accidentally enter our lives." —EM

"The History of Love renewed my long-abandoned faith in magical realism and lifelong love stories. A young girl's search for the author of an obscure, discarded book and an old man's struggle with utter lonesomeness circle each other through reality and breathtaking distortion, only to end as you realize their stories could end no other way." —NB



"The Mind-Body Problem, Rebecca Goldstein's classic novel published thirty years ago, tells the story of  a young graduate student, Renee, navigating her marriage to a legendary mathematical genius at Princeton. As Reneee struggles with the tension between emotion and intelligence, she is forced to examine her marriage, love life, and Jewish identity." —NF-T 

"Peter Cole's exquisite translations prove that no one wrote love poetry like the great (and the obscure) Sepharadic lyricists. No one." —NB

"I've had If You Awaken Love on my shelf for years; I always have it around to share with anyone looking for a wonderful read." —CH



"The Golem and the Jinni: magical realism at its best. Helene Wecker's literary debut has born two of the most heartbreaking creatures ever written." —NB 

"Song of Songs: among the most beautiful and the most desperate expressions of love and longing in verse." —NB

The Teacher Has Plenty to Learn

Friday, July 19, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Melissa R. Klapper wrote about abortion and the complexity of halacha and 5 American Jewish women you've (probably) never heard of. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

At Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ, where I teach, all would-be history majors and minors are required to take (and pass–we’re sticklers that way) a course called Historical Methods. This class is a huge challenge for both students and teachers, as it is writing intensive and the students rarely come to it with much of an interest in historiography, theory, or best practices in terms of scholarship. To humanize the issues, I tell tales of historians behaving badly—those who have plagiarized, forged sources, cheated—who paid the price for their professional malfeasance. But as I learned while working on my most recent book, a history of American Jewish women in the suffrage, birth control and peace movements during the early 20th century, there are other kinds of cautionary tales that should also be part of my repertoire.

Before I even began this book, I was already aware of at least two 1916 Yiddish plays about birth control, both of which are housed at the Library of Congress. I knew about them because the images of their front pages have often been reproduced in accounts of American Jewry and because they have regularly been referred to by scholars in the context of general Jewish communal support for the birth control movement. As I dove into the research for my book, I discovered that apparently no one had actually ever translated these plays in full. My reading knowledge of Yiddish, though adequate for Yiddish periodicals and the like, could not cope with the hand-written manuscripts of the plays, so with the help of a grant, I commissioned Naomi Shoshana Cohen to do the translations. She and I discussed my overall project, and she set about the time-consuming task.

Imagine my surprise when, with each scene Naomi translated and sent to me, it became more and more apparent that neither of these plays contained expressions of Jewish support for birth control. On the contrary, both of the plays condemned contraception roundly, and one of them was viciously anti-feminist as well. While literally hundreds of other primary sources that I was finding did confirm the American Jewish community’s overall support of the birth control movement, the very existence of these two plays helped demonstrate that pockets of resistance and ambivalence retained cultural currency and that, as is often the case, the full story was a complex one. My analysis of these plays turned into a scholarly article and a major part of one of the book’s chapters on birth control, and I learned a valuable lesson. Making assumptions based on the assumptions of other people, even distinguished scholars, is hardly in the same category of the egregious historians’ sins I tell my Historical Methods students about. But it is a mistake nonetheless, and one that I am now more attuned to and try to teach my students to avoid. The historian’s mantra of going directly to the sources remains the best advice for students, enthusiasts, and professionals alike.

Melissa R. Klapper's new book, Ballots, Babies, and Banners of Peace: American Jewish Women's Activism, 1890-1940, is now available.

New Jewish Book Council Reviews

Friday, July 19, 2013 | Permalink
This week's new Jewish Book Council reviews:


Find more of the latest reviews here.
 

Interview: Howard Jacobson on "The Swag Man"

Friday, July 19, 2013 | Permalink

by Tahneer Oksman

Howard Jacobson is a Manchester-born author and the recent recipient of the Man Booker Prize, as well as two Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prizes for comic writing. His books often center around Jewish characters and themes, and he has referred to himself as “a Jewish Jane Austen.”

The Swag Man” is a story recently released as an Amazon Kindle Single, and published by Tablet MagazineBased on his life, Jacobson’s story follows Frankie Cohen, a young and impudent salesman who sells “swag” (or, basically, cheap trinkets) for Jacobson’s father in the rough-and-tumble marketplaces of Northern England. Cohen grows up to become an art dealer, brushing elbows with the elite but never fully letting go of his Yiddishkeit roots.

In “The Swag Man,” using rich and elegant prose, Jacobson examines postwar Jewish assimilation through the triangulation of three characters—a father, a son, and Frankie—who react to a changing world in different ways. This intergenerational narrative is a thoughtful meditation on what it means to remain consciously connected to and haunted by the past.

Tahneer Oksman: What compelled you to write "The Swag Man?"

Howard Jacobson: The simple answer is that it was commissioned, or if you like suggested, by Tablet Magazine, an online publication I admire - the challenge being to write a shortish, stand-alone piece about a contemporary Jewish figure who interests me.

I also chose to tell this tale about my father the market man, and the art collector Frank Cohen who once worked for him, because I enormously relish remembering the world in which they met, in which I met Frank, the world we both left, and yet to which we still somehow belong. It is funny, and touching, in ways I cannot stop exploring. That I should have come out of it to be a novelist, and Frank to be an art collector, reflects on it fascinatingly to me.

TO: Your piece deals quite explicitly—and beautifully, I thought—with the melancholy of postwar Jewish assimilation. Do you see this as a common theme in contemporary British Jewish writing?

HJ: There hasn't been enough British writing of the sort you describe. We have been too quiet here. Too discreet. Maybe too frightened of drawing attention to ourselves. When I first began, several Jews told me to my face that they regretted my writing about being Jewish at all. They felt I was a nestbeschmutzer. Though when I won the Man Booker Prize with The Finkler Question, there was more pride than anything else that the British Jewish experience had finally been acknowledged by the literary establishment - which might be a touch optimistic.

TO: Are there others who have written on the Jewish experience who have inspired you? As I read your descriptions of the marketplace early on in "The Swag Man," for example, I kept thinking of Alfred Kazin's descriptions of Brownsville in A Walker in the City.

HJ: I haven't read the Kazin. And indeed I didn't read much literature about Jews as I was learning to write myself. I knew Louis Golding's Magnolia Street, but didn't want to go in that direction; it felt too provincial, and a fear of the parochial is another reason British Jews have avoided the subject of themselves - British Jewish life doesn't have the grand resonance of American Jewish life.

But I wasn't, early on, steeped in the American Jewish writers either. I had read some Bellow and Heller, but only began to read Roth and Singer later. I didn't learn how to write about Jews from them. My models, as a novelist, were Dickens, Jane Austen, Lawrence, Henry James, George Eliot - not a Jew among them. Jewishness I got from the Manchester I grew up in and which I celebrate in "The Swag Man." I only got going as a writer - I was only able to begin to write at all - when I saw that I needed to put the two together. How to combine my dad with Henry James, that was the problem I had to solve.

TO: I read the story as autobiographical. Did you intend it that way?

HJ: You're right that it's not strictly speaking fiction, though I'd say that everything I write is fiction really. I'm not sure I believe in autobiography: the minute one writes, one changes - I don't say falsifies but recolours, de-emphasises, exaggerates, pauses, gallops, overleaps, etc. This is inevitable, because the minute you choose a form, or a shape, you give to life an order that it never had.

But while I say there is no clear difference between fiction and autobiography as I write it, there is one, and it's important. In fiction which doesn't for a moment offer to be anything else, you have no obligation to be true to anyone real, because there is no real anyone behind the work. In a piece like this there is. So it is not quite as free. One cannot run as wild; on the other hand, it is a challenge to work within the inhibitions of the real. Fancy is on a rein, but how far can you go without slipping that rein?

TO: Did you have a particular audience in mind while you were writing? I read the piece as a kind of ode to your father's memory, and I wonder if that was how it felt to you.

HJ: Yes, you are right to see it as that. I do feel an obligation to my father's memory - I should say that my mother is still alive, which in a sense leaves me free, temporarily, to concentrate my sense of obligation on him. Over and above the obligation that any son owes his father, I feel a writer's obligation.

How to explain this? He was a vivid man, as I hope I have succeeded in evoking in the piece, a lover of life, but not educated and not articulate. Partly, I feel I owe him the words he didn't have. Partly, I am making recompense for valuing my words above his wordlessness, for wanting to put him, as a man who didn't read, behind me, for any shame I felt as the son of a market-man/taxi driver, for the time it took me to see how much of what I could do, and what I valued, I owed to him. It was always easier to feel a debt to my mother who was a reader. If my mother led me into literature, and so, in very direct ways, made me a writer, it was the intensity with which my father took life on - his love of laughter, his raucous relish of the world around him - that made me the kind of writer I am.

But you ask if I have a particular audience. I don't. I don't, for example, write to my father. He wouldn't have been able to read me. But I write for him.

Tahneer Oksman recently received her PhD in English Literature at the Graduate Center at CUNY. She is currently at work on a manuscript on Jewish women’s identity in contemporary graphic memoirs.

From Intermarried Couple to Observant Jewish Family

Thursday, July 18, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gayle Redlingshafer Berman wrote about mourning the loss of a non-Jewish parent. Today we hear from Gayle's co-author, her husband Harold Berman, the former Executive Director of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts. Gayle and Harold are the co-authors of Doublelife: One Family, TwoFaiths and a Journey of Hope, the first true-life account of "an intermarriage gone Jewish." They have been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When my wife and I speak to groups about our family's journey to Judaism, inevitably we are asked about our parents. How did Gayle's parents, devout Christians that they were, feel about Gayle becoming an observant Jew? How did my parents feel about me leaving my Reform upbringing to embrace an Orthodox life?

The questions are hardly academic. We have heard from numerous converts about parents who didn't understand their decision, who felt betrayed, who now worried for their souls, who sometimes even actively tried to undermine their choices. For Ba'alei Teshuva – those Jews who were not raised observant but became so as adults – the reaction of their Jewish parents often is hardly more positive.

When we are asked about how our parents reacted and if we had any difficulties, we respond honestly that we are blessed. Gayle wrote in the previous blog post about her father. His support of Israel was rock solid. He was a true Christian Zionist and "got it" far more than many Jews I know. He was not only supportive of our move to Israel, but proudly wore his Israel Defense Forces cap in the midst of the cornfields of Farmington, Illinois.

My parents, too, have been unreservedly supportive, in stark contrast to the parents of so many Ba'alei Teshuva I have met. When I started to become observant and Gayle started to explore the possibility of becoming Jewish, I secretly feared my parents' reaction. I had heard of parents who, upon learning that their adult children now kept kosher, angrily demanded, "What do you mean you won't eat in my house? My food's not good enough for you anymore?" Instead, my parents called one day to tell me that they were kashering their kitchen, down to every last plate, bowl and fork. "After all," my mother said, "my grandchildren should be able to eat in my kitchen."

A couple of years later, my parents were standing in line at the supermarket next to a man whose son had gone to Hebrew school with me. His son also had become observant as an adult. The father was beside himself, speaking with frustration about his son's new dietary habits and Shabbat observance. Thinking his words were falling on sympathetic ears, he turned to my parents and sighed, "Oh, where did we go wrong?" To which my mother, without dropping a beat, fired back, "No – where did we go right?"

When we wrote Doublelife: One Family, Two Faiths and a Journey of Hope, about our unanticipated journey from intermarried couple to observant Jewish family, we were surprised to receive so many enthusiastic e-mails not only from the intermarried families for whom the book was originally intended, but from Jews across the religious spectrum as well as religious Christians. The theme in Doublelife that resonates most often, even for those on very different religious paths, is the theme of relationship.

As our journey shows, husband and wife each grow and change over time and are often not the same people years down the road as they were when they married. As husband and wife change, they can just as easily grow apart as together, largely depending on their outlook and how hard they decide to work at it.

Parents and children represent a different kind of relationship, but the same dynamics of constant change apply. There is the same tendency to grow apart or together, depending on outlook and effort. And there is the same imperative to keep the relationship strong, whatever obstacles may fall along the path.

For what we have learned above all – with each other and with our parents – is that obstacles need not remain obstacles. They can be turned into blessings.

Find out more about Gayle and Harold here

Book Cover of the Week: Elie Wiesel

Wednesday, July 17, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives (Steven T. Katz and Alan Rosen, eds.), published by Indiana University Press in May, explores the various aspects of Wiesel's multifacted career, including his texts on "the Bible, the Talmud, and Hasidism as well as his literary works, his teaching, and his testimony." We asked Janet Rabinowitch, former director of IU Press, to share the backstory behind the painting on the book's cover: 

Artist Mark Podwal’s jacket painting depicts works by Elie Wiesel. The works illustrated, as described by Podwal, are, from left to right and row by row: One Generation After (a story about a watch belonging to EW that was buried in Sighet); The Oath (about a burned shtetl); The Jews of Silence (Russian Jewry); Souls on Fire (Rabbi Nachman’s chair); King Solomon and His Magic Ring (a pomegranate, based on one of Podwal’s illustrations for an edition of this work); Ani Maamin (a shofar, since one of the 10 reasons the shofar is sounded is that one day it will sound when the Messiah comes); A Beggar in Jerusalem; Night; Messengers of God (a Torah); The Golem (Prague’s Altneuschul); and A Passover Haggadah.. The original painting was commissioned by Chapman University as a gift to Elie Wiesel. It hangs framed in his home.


View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.