The ProsenPeople

The University of the Ghetto

Monday, October 31, 2011 | Permalink

Gloria Spielman‘s most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime won a silver medal in the 2011 Moonbeam Children’s Book AwardsGloria will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

When I’m back in London there’s a building I like to visit.  If you’re an art lover and you’ve been to London you may know the place.  It’s the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End.  But it’s not the art that I go for, it’s the building itself or rather its new-old addition – the former Whitechapel Library.

The original gallery building opened in in London’s East End in 1901. It seemed like an odd location. The neighbourhood was dodgy.  Outsiders were scared to set foot in the area. In his book People of the Abyss, the writer Jack London tells of the horrified reactions of people when, in 1902, he told them he was planning on living there for a while. “You don’t want to live down there!” they said alarmed.” London fared no better with the good folks at Thomas Cook and Son, an English travel company that sent intrepid travelers all over the world and refused to take him a stone’s throw away to the East End. You can’t do it you know,” they told him “It is so – ahem –  unusual. Consult the police.”

Fortunately this was also the age of philanthropists with the winning combination of a zeal for social reform and deep pockets. Samuel Augustus Barnett, a social reformer and clergyman who’d moved to the East End, believed that the poor folks, native born and immigrants, in the crowded Whitechapel tenements deserved a library no less than Londoners in wealthier areas. He persuaded John Passmore Edwards, another social reformer, to dig into his wallet and fund a library for the residents of Whitechapel. The library opened in 1892. And what a library it was.

They called it The University of the Ghetto and it acquired legendary status. The area was home to vast numbers of poor Jewish immigrants with a thirst for knowledge. Because of Jewish borrowers the library built up the largest collection of Jewish and Yiddish literature in any British library.  It was a refuge and meeting place for all-sorts: radical thinkers, school children, dockers, office workers and down and outs.  They browsed the shelves and sat at the wooden tables in the reading room. And the list of writers and artists who got their start at number 77 Whitechapel High Street was long.

But times change. When it came time for me to join the library it was the late 1960s and the writing was already on the wall for the Jewish East End. The Jews had started moving on to pastures suburban. The generation of writers, artists, scholars, scientists, doctors and lawyers who’d got their start at the library had made their way in the world. At age five I knew nothing of the legions of readers that had gone before me. But the day I stepped over the threshold of number 77 Whitechapel High St and walked past the glazed tile picture of the old Whitechapel Haymarket, the library worked its magic. Number 77 became my second home. I asked to be taken to the library at every opportunity. When I was old enough I disappeared there for hours. You name it, I’ve read it. My favourite was Jewish literature. Like thousands before me, I sat at the wooden tables alongside all sorts.

Back home one university vacation, I returned to the library only to discover that Jewish literature had disappeared.  The dwindling Jewish community had taken its toll and the books had been moved to the basement. “Not much call for them anymore I’m afraid,” the librarian told me. “Would you like to see them?”  she asked. Of course I did. The caretaker opened a door and led me down dark stairs into the library basement. It was a Jewish bibliophile’s paradise. I wandered the shelves of books and yellowing old newspapers in Yiddish and English.  Many I’d read, some I’d been meaning to read, some held no real interest and others were in Yiddish which I barely read, but still each book was somebody’s world. How many worlds were dumped here underneath the feet of the pedestrians of Whitechapel High St?

From time to time I would visit my books. It was wonderful down there in the basement. Just me and my books. Occasionally a member of the library staff would pop their heads in to check on me.  In time, the library sold off the books to university libraries. I bought some. Today they sit on my shelves. Occasionally, when I have writers’ block I’ll open one, just the smell of the old paper with its patina of thumbprints of generations of Jewish immigrants is enough to ignite the imagination again.

In August 2005, Whitechapel Library closed its doors after 113 years. It reopened a tube station away as the Idea Store, a fabulous 4 storey building  with thousands more books, a café, free internet,  a crèche and even a dance studio.  I do believe Passmore Edwards would have approved.

The old building was bought by the Whitechapel Gallery next door. In 2009 it reopened as part of the Gallery after a massive renovation. Not long after, I went to check on the old girl. The Haymarket was gone. The original stair case and balustrade up to the reading room remained. There was not a trace of the old dark basement. Instead of books, you’ll find brightly lit toilets and a baby changing room. Up the in old reading room, the doors and windows looked just the same.  And those old wooden tables were just as I remembered. I got chatting to the young woman at the front desk. I mentioned I’d come to see the old library. “Funny, we’ve had a few people like you wanting to see the old library. Must have been a special place.”

I popped in again last month. Up in the old reading room on the first floor I shared my memories with the Gallery archivist. He told me: “Some people come here and say they just want to stroke the tables.” Makes sense to me.

Check back all week for more posts from Gloria Spielman.

Their (Our) Time Has Come

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Trina Robbins wrote about a Jewish woman who drew comics. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Last month I flew to Seattle to attend the first GeekGirlCon (but not the last!).  GeekGirlCon is for the Rest of Us; maybe not 99%, but definitely 52%, the women who have for so long been shut out of a male-dominated comics industry, and all the related male-dominated industries, like computers and gaming.  It’s for us geeky girls who spent our high school years as outsiders, never cheerleaders, never dating the football team (often never dating at all!), but with our noses buried in science fiction or fantasy books or comics.  All those geeky girls have grown up into enthusiastic and talented young women  who are making great clothes and jewelry, creating wonderful new comics — and with not a superhero in the bunch. The energy level in the rooms was high and optimistic.

Instead of complaining about the insultingly gigantic-breasted women in the mainstream, male-oriented comics, the GeekGirls are drawing comics for themselves, which means for us.  They’re telling stories that we GeekGirls (and as the oldest person at that convention, I’m still a GeekGirl) can read and identify with, and drawing them beautifully.  I was on a panel devoted to Womanthology, a new women’s anthology project that raised their goal of $25,000 in production funds via  Kickstarter in under 20 hours. By the end of the fundraising period a month later, they had raised $109,301, making Womanthology the most-funded comics project to date. I’m honored to be one of the contributors. I told the audience about my Lily Renee graphic novel, and one woman said to me after the panel that she was moved to tears just learning about Lily’s story.

The week before I left for Seattle, the Occupy Wall Street movement had already spread to other cities: Portland,Seattle, Los Angeles, and my city, San Francisco.  But I’d been too busy meeting my deadlines to visit to their encampment.  Finally this past weekend, I found the time.  I brought with me a bag filled with the stuff hotels give you: shampoos, lotions, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, mending kits, little bottles and packages I always tossed into a drawer upon returning home from my travels, figuring I’d have a use for them one day.  So I finally had a use for them; I donated them to the red cross tent.  Then my partner and I toured the encampment.  It was neat and clean — as neat as a tent city could be — and they had even put up a library tent.  So the next day, my partner and I returned, this time with a carton of comics for the library tent.  Our visit this time coincided with a march to the Occupy encampment from the people of Glide Memorial Church, one of the most prominently liberal churches inAmerica, led by the Reverend Cecil Williams.  They had come to offer solidarity to the people of the Occupy movement.

With the exception of a few seriously decrepit old hippies (for a change I was NOT the oldest person!), the people of the Occupy encampment were, like the women at GeekGirlCon, young and enthusiastic, and like GeekGirlCon, the energy level was high and optimistic.  Somehow active, caring, optimistic young people skipped a generation, if not several.  There was very little in the way of real political activity in the 90s, and less in the first decade of the 21st Century. America seemed listless and depressed.  But now young people are back in action, and I can see them making changes. I marched my last march in the early 90s, for abortion rights.  I’m too old to camp out on concrete.  But I can do what I can to help and cheer on the young change-makers.  This world is yours!

Trina Robbins is the author of the just-released Lily Renee: Escape Artist.

NYC Event: Erika Dreifus (author of The Quiet Americans)

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter


The Jewish Historical Society of New York will present “Looking Backward: History, the Holocaust, and Literary Writing in the Third Generation” on Sunday, November 13, 2011.

NETWORK author  Erika Dreifus will be the guest speaker.

The program will be held at Park East Synagogue / Minskoff Cultural Center, 164 East 68th Street, Manhattan (between Third and Lexington Avenues) at 2:00PM on November 13th. There is a $5 admission charge. Subway: 6 to 68th Street.

Read Erika’s posts for the JBC/MJL Author Blog here and read more about the November 13th event here.

Great Women, Cut Short

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 | Permalink

Trina Robbins is the author of the just-released Lily Renee: Escape Artist, the Jewish superhero comic book GoGirl, and tons of other books.

Today I’m recovering from my annual Worst Cold Ever, trying to take it easy with a book and hot chai — and I’m angry. The book I’m reading is Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, written in pencil in tiny cramped handwriting on the pages of a worn notebook while she was hiding from the Nazis in 1942. Nemirovsky was already a famous and successful author, but that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who eventually found her, arrested her, and murdered her in Auschwitz. Her two young daughters spent the war years in hiding, first in a convent, then moving from house to house. When they fled from the Vichy gendarmes Denise, the older daughter, took Nemirovsky’s notebook with her, not because she knew what was in it, but because it was something of her mother’s that she could keep. It was many years before the sisters could bring themselves to read the contents of the notebook, but when they did they realized that they had been carrying around their mother’s last novel, about Parisians fleeing the 1940 Nazi invasion.

“Suite Francaise” was finally published 64 years after her death.

Earlier this month I went to the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum to see a selection of Charlotte Salomon’s exquisite art from her opus, “Life? Or Theater?” (The entire work, at over one thousand pages, would have been impossible to exhibit.) There has recently been much talk about Jewish women artists drawing autobiographical comics (there has been a traveling exhibition on the subject) and, told sequentially. Although each picture is on a separate page rather than being contained within panel borders, “Life? Or Theater?” is clearly the first graphic novel autobiography by a Jewish woman artist.

Pregnant and 25 years old, Salomon and her husband were arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and like Nemirovsky, taken to Auschwitz and there murdered. I’m beyond angry. Two young and vibrant, immensely talented beautiful women murdered by creatures that don’t even deserve to be called human. How many others were there, who never got to write their novels, draw their stories?

Which brings us to Lily Renee and my graphic novel, Lily Renee: Escape Artist. If Lily’s story had not had a happy ending, I would not have been able to bring myself to tell it. If the Jewish teenager, Lily Renee Wilheim, had not been able to escape Nazi-occupied Vienna on one of the last Kindertransport trains to England, but instead had become one of the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis, there would have been no Lily to grow up and draw comics in America, to become one of the best and most famous women comics artists of the 1940s. How many others were there?

In the histories I’ve written about early 20th century women cartoonists, I’ve always devoted as much space as possible to the artist who drew Nazi-fighting women like aviatrix Jane Martin and glamorous counterspy Senorita Rio, and signed her comics with the sexually ambiguous name “L. Renee.” But that wasn’t much space because I didn’t know anything about Lily, until one day I received an email that began, “I am Lily Renee’s daughter…” I found out that Lily Renee Wilheim Philips was alive and well and living in New York City, and when I met this elegant, cultured, and gracious lady and learned her harrowing story, I knew I had to tell it.

As I said, this story has a happy ending. When England went to war with Germany, Lily lost touch with the parents she’d had to leave behind in Vienna, and didn’t know that they had escaped to America. But they found her, and Lily sailed to America, where, after living the hand-to-mouth existence of poor refugees, Lily eventually found work drawing comics for the comic book publisher, Fiction House. At last, on paper, she was able to beat the Nazis!

So yeah, Lily Renee: Escape Artist is a comic by a Jewish woman about a Jewish woman who drew comics. And it’s for Charlotte Salomon and Irene Nemirovsky, and the 1.5 million kids who never had the chance to grow up and produce comics or novels or graphic novels.

Lily Renee: Escape Artist is a graphic novel for younger readers, but that only means that there’s no cursing and no sex in the book. I write my graphic novels for young readers exactly as I would wish to read them; I never write down. For interested New Yorkers, Lily and I will be talking about and signing the graphic novel at the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) on November 3, from 7-9 P.M. and on November 6, at Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, from 3-5 P.M. If you live in San Francisco like me, I’ll be presenting a talk and PowerPoint slide show at the main branch of the San Francisco public library (alas, without Lily) on November 29.

Check back for more posts from Trina Robbins later this week.

A Sukkah Occupies Wall Street

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 | Permalink

Last week, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice and asked discussed the importance of place. Her most recent bookWhere Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights), is now available.

As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.

Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.

The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.

But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.

I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.

October Jewish Book Carnival

Monday, October 17, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter 



The October Jewish Book Carnival is here! The month’s carnival is being hosted by Homeshuling. 

Check it out for a review of The Last Brother, Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast, The North of God, and more.

Does Place Matter?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice. Her most recent book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights), is now available.

I started Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community with a question: Does place matter?

In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to say that place doesn’t matter at all. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can skype with friends and relatives all over the world. If I choose tomorrow to move to Fiji, I can do so. If I wanted, I could hire a secretary in India, outsource data entry to Cambodia, and telecommute from a cruise ship on the Atlantic. We no longer live in a world in which we grow up, go to school, work, and die in the same city or even often the same country.

And yet, I had a deep conviction that place does matter. Personally, I have prioritized doing justice work in the place where I live (New York City/the United States) and in Israel, where I have deep roots and much experience. At the same time, I cannot ignore the dire poverty in parts of the world far from where I live, and where I may never visit.

Place plays a fundamental role in Jewish tradition. We tell our people’s story in geographic terms—Abraham left the land of his ancestors and settled in Canaan; Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt; the Israelite people came out of Egypt, journey through the wilderness, and found their place in the land of Israel. Our history includes sojourns in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Arab World. We continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple—once our central place—and the subsequent expulsions from many of the places we have lived. There is even a divine aspect to place—the rabbis call God “HaMakom”—“The Place.”

At the same time, we are a people whose history transcends place. We maintain our traditions even as we move around the world (though these traditions have shifted according to the places where we live). We speak of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—as a unit not bounded by geography.

So does place matter or not?

I ended up devoting much of the second chapter of the book to a particularly intriguing text that considers how to prioritize our own needs with those of the people of another place. In this text, the people of one town have a well from which they take water to drink, to feed their animals, and to do laundry. People of another town, in which there is no well, stop by to ask for water. The ensuing several centuries of discussion considers which of our own needs take priority, when to share the water, and what responsibility to place on the residents of any individual place to care for their own needs.

The conclusion: Place isn’t everything, but it still matters.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition

Sukkot and Social Justice

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 | Permalink

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights).

My initial venture into Jewish social justice came my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Determined to learn something about Harlem — the neighborhood that bounded my school to the north and east—I got involved with a community organizing effort to help residents avoid eviction and ensure safe living conditions. At the time, New York City was in the process of ridding itself of thousands of buildings that had defaulted to city ownership when landlords abandoned them during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and 1980s. In the late ’90s, as housing prices in Harlem were rising, the city began selling these buildings to for-profit landlords, who often found ways to evict long-term tenants or to push them out by refusing to turn on the hot water, or to do needed repairs.

Several times a week, I would walk ten minutes east of JTS, to 123rd and Harlem, and spend time with elderly women trying to get their landlords to turn the hot water on, or families fighting eviction as rents rose. I would then walk back to school, where I would break my teeth over Aramaic grammar, and immerse myself in conversations about Shabbat and Jewish mourning practices. All of these felt important, but I struggled to understand the connection between what I saw in Harlem and what I was learning in school.

My peers and my teachers supported my work, but couldn’t guide me toward anything that would help it all make sense. At the time, nobody in my world was talking about Jewish social justice. Most of the organizations that now define the Jewish social justice landscape either did not yet exist, or were tiny players in the Jewish landscape.

I started studying Jewish texts about the relations between landlords and tenants and, to my surprise, found dozens of rabbinic conversations from 1500 years before, about when one is allowed to evict a tenant, what repairs the landlord must do, and what repairs fall under the tenant’s responsibility.

I took a risk and wrote a short piece about my own experiences both organizing in Harlem and tutoring children in a transitional housing center nearby. I wrote about the Jewish paradigm of the sukkah — the temporary structure meant to be lived in only for a week—and the ma’akeh — the guardrail built on the roof of a home to prevent falls. I wrote about an eleven-year-old boy I had met who was exceedingly bright — but who had never learned to read probably because his family’s frequent moves meant that he never stayed in one school long enough to learn. I wrote about the need for stable, long-term housing that protects the physical and emotional health of its residents.

On a whim, I sent this piece to Tikkun Magazine. I was 23 years old, and had never published anything in a national publication. To my surprise, they took it. To my greater surprise, people read it. And, to my amazement, numerous people told me that they, too, had been looking for connections between Judaism and social justice.

This all happened before such publications had an on-line presence, before blogging existed, and before we could facebook or tweet articles to the world. So it was shocking that so many people read a paper publication, and then e-mailed or called me to tell me what they thought.

This initial experience led me through a long process of working in social justice organizations, both inside and outside of the Jewish world. I wanted to know more about urban politics, so I got a degree in Urban Affairs. And, eventually, I decided to write more. I kept getting calls from people looking for a book that would provide a Jewish approach to contemporary issues. I couldn’t find a recent one to recommend, so I decided to write my own. This led to the publication of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, which came out in 2009. This book looked at criminal justice, housing, labor, the environment, and other justice issues through the lens of Jewish text, social science, and real people whom I have met in my work.

And then I thought I was done. Writing a book is quite a project—especially when one has a full-time job. I spent Sundays, late nights, and early mornings crouched over my computer writing and editing. I drafted my husband and several friends into editing. So I promised not to write another book for a very long time.

But then, I started touring with There Shall Be No Needy. I went to Barnes & Nobles, synagogues, Board of Rabbis meetings, and JCCs around the country. And, at every stop, someone raised his or her hand and said, “It’s good to hear that Judaism has so much to say about social justice. But my synagogue’s social justice committee is struggling. What should we do?”

And so I realized that I needed to write another book. Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide To Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community starts where There Shall Be No Needy leaves off. It gives the theoretical background for why Jews should do social justice work. It walks through how to choose where to focus one’s justice work. And then I get practical. Based on my own experiences, as well as textual precedent, I talk about how we can do effective service, organizing, and advocacy in our own communities. I talk about how we can form strong partnerships with other religious, ethnic, and social welfare organizations. I talk about how we can use power effectively.

I’ve told everyone I know that I’m really not writing another book for a very long time. But I do look forward to hearing from individuals and institutions about your own experience implementing the ideas in Where Justice Dwells.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here all through Sukkot.

Jewish Art

Tuesday, October 11, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

From Tablet:

A Jewish literature is easy to identify. But defining Jewish art is a task of Talmudic complexity, as a new book, Jewish Art, makes clear.

In today’s Tablet magazine, columnist Adam Kirsch looks into the very idea of Jewish art with the help of the content of the new book. Authors Samantha Baskind and Larry Silver examine the theory that no real definition of Jewish art exists.

Feast of Famine

Monday, October 10, 2011 | Permalink

Lauren Shockey is the author of Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. She offered thoughts on Yom Kippur and break fast to us last week, which we’re sharing here today.  While it’s too late late to make some of the delicious dishes she mentions for this past year’s Yom Kippur, save them for next year, or, even better, try them out for Sukkot this week.

We might associate Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with fasting, but for me, the holiday is as much about eating—that is, breaking the fast—as it is about abstaining from food.

Growing up in New York City, my break fast meals were minor affairs.  Really, it was just my parents and me having dinner, since the vast majority of our Jewish relatives live outside of New York City.  Yet when I lived in Tel Aviv, working at the restaurant Carmella Bistro and writing what would become Four Kitchens, I befriended a group of Israelis who took me under their wing and we celebrated the Days of Awe together, first having a large dinner for Rosh Hashanah, and then an equally festive break fast meal following Yom Kippur.  Because I was apprenticing to be a chef, I had been tasked with cooking for Rosh Hashanah, and I prepared an elaborate feast combining American favorites (brisket, an apple tart) with Israeli ones (hummus).

For Yom Kippur, my friend Kate took over the dinner. My newfound pals and I gathered around the table, admiring her flaky golden boureka right out of the oven, excited to sate our hunger and begin anew.  Yet, as when the seasons change and we look towards the New Year, our longing wasn’t just a physical hunger, but an emotional one, too, of beginning a journey together as the book seals our fate for the ensuing year.

Although I celebrated the holidays in New York City this year with friends and family, I cooked the dishes that I made during my Tel Avivian Days of Awe (and which subsequently made it into Four Kitchens): sweet potato soup with feta and za’atar oil, red-wine braised brisket, and pomegranate-herb salad (see recipes below).   And yet while I’ve mastered the skills to develop recipes on my own, I still like to leaf through cookbooks that celebrate the season and the cuisine of the Levant.  Here are my three of my picks for when you’re looking for delicious sustenance for the Jewish holidays.

The New Book of Israeli Food – Filled with luscious photographs, this book celebrates contemporary Israeli cooking, and you can even find a recipe from Carmella Bistro where I worked.  You’ll see simple fare, like shakshuka (spicy poached eggs), as well as more complicated dishes like lamb and quince stew.  Part of the book is also divided by holidays, making it all the more fun this time of year.

The Book of Jewish Food   — Claudia Roden is a cookbook goddess, exploring the cuisines of the Levant.  While I am partial to the recipes in her New Book of Middle Eastern Food, I really love how in this tome she explores the worldwide Jewish Diaspora and how recipes have changed according to geography.

Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous  – Having lived in both Paris and Tel Aviv, I find this book to be really informative.  We don’t normally think of France as having a strong Jewish culture, but Nathan traces the past 2,000 years of history, illustrating the parallels in the two cuisines.  The North African Sephardic recipes are of particular interest to me, since I love the rich, spice-filled cuisine.

Recipes from Four Kitchens:

Sweet Potato Soup with Feta and Zaatar Oil 

This is a really simple soup, warming and autumnal and gently flavored with hints of the Middle East. Zaatar is a spice blend that combines dried hyssop, thyme, and sesame seeds and can be found at Middle Eastern grocery stores or other specialty stores.

Serves 6-8

1⁄4 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons zaatar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 small leek, diced
5 small sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped in 1-inch cubes
6 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1⁄4 cup feta cheese

In a small pot, combine 1⁄4 cup olive oil and the zaatar. Cook over medium heat until hot, but take care not to burn the zaa‐ tar. Set aside for at least 1 hour to cool and infuse.

In a large pot, heat the butter and remaining olive oil over medium‐high heat. When the butter has melted, add the onion, carrot, and leek, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sweet potato cubes, and sauté for another minute. Add the water, stock, and bay leaf, and bring to a boil. once the soup begins to boil, lower to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Check to make sure the sweet potatoes are completely soft. Add the salt to the soup.

Remove the bay leaf and puree the soup using a regular or immersion blender. If the soup is too thick, add a little water or stock until a desired consistency has been reached. Ladle the soup into individual bowls. Crumble the feta into each bowl and drizzle with the zaatar oil.

Red Wine-Braised Brisket

Brisket is a popular choice for the Jewish holidays, and although the meat can frequently be tough, the trick is to cook it for a really long time over a very low temperature so that the fat and collagen break down and the meat becomes fork‐tender. This is great served over a bed of creamy polenta or mashed potatoes. The 5‐to‐6‐pound brisket is the weight before the fat is trimmed off; after the fat is trimmed, the yield should be about 3 to 4 pounds of beef.

Serves 8

1 medium to large yellow onion
4 carrots
1 leek, white part only
2 ribs celery
1 beef brisket, about 5 to 6 pounds before trimming
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1⁄4 teaspoon
freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
6 sprigs thyme
2 cups red wine
2 cups beef stock

Preheat the oven to 320 degrees F. Cut the onion in half ver‐ tically, then cut each half into quarters. Cut the carrots, leek, and celery into 2‐inch pieces.

Trim and discard all the fat off the brisket, including the cen‐ ter layer of fat. Cut the brisket into three pieces. Generously season the brisket pieces with the salt and pepper on all sides. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to smoke, place one piece of the brisket in the pan and sear on each side for about 2 minutes, or until a dark golden crust forms. Remove from the pan and keep warm. Repeat with the remaining two pieces of brisket. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the pan, and sauté the gar‐ lic, onion, carrots, leek, celery, bay leaves, and thyme until the garlic begins to turn golden. Transfer the vegetable mixture to a Dutch oven or other heavy‐bottomed baking dish. Place the beef atop the bed of vegetables.

Add 1⁄2 cup red wine to the skillet and deglaze the pan, scrap‐ ing up any bits that may be stuck to the bottom. once you have reduced the wine by half, pour over the meat. Add the remaining wine and the beef stock to the skillet, and bring to a boil. Pour over the meat and vegetables. The liquid should come halfway up to the meat but should not submerge it completely.

Bake, covered, for 4 hours, basting and turning the meat every half hour. The braising liquid should be at a gentle boil the whole time. If the liquid is boiling rapidly, lower the heat to 315 degrees F. If there is a lot of liquid remaining in the pot, cook with the lid slightly ajar for the last hour. The meat should be tender enough when done to be cut with a fork and should fall apart easily when handled with tongs. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving.

Divide the brisket among bowls and serve with some of the vegetables and braising liquid.

Pomegranate-Herb Salad

This bright‐green‐and‐red salad is inspired by the herb salad with toasted cashews served at Carmella. Plus, it utilizes the best trick I learned at Carmella: deseeding pomegranates in a snap. Since herbs have a tendency to darken when cut, make sure they are completely dry after washing them (the best way to wash them is to leave them tied in bunches and let them soak in cold water for a few minutes, swirling the water occasionally to remove any dirt) before slicing. And don’t worry if you have uneven or whole leaves; that’s part of this salad’s charm.

Serves 6

2 pomegranates
2 bunches parsley (about 6 cups’ worth of leaves)
1 bunch cilantro (about 2 cups’ worth of leaves)
1⁄2 bunch mint (about 1 to 11⁄2 cups leaves)
4 cups baby arugula leaves
1⁄2 teaspoon kosher salt
1⁄4 cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Slice the pomegranates in half lengthwise. Make five to six incisions at a 20‐degree angle into the base of each half. over a bowl, place the pomegranate half seed‐side down into your palm and whack the top of the fruit with a spoon. Repeat until there are no more seeds left in the fruit. Remove any yellow pith that might have fallen out along with the seeds. Place the seeds into a large salad bowl.

Cut the parsley, cilantro, and mint: Leaving the herbs tied in bunches and using a sharp knife, thinly slice the herbs starting at the top of the bunch. once you reach mostly stems, discard the bunch. Add the herbs to the bowl.

Take the arugula and form it into a ball. Using the same sin‐ gle slicing motion, cut the arugula into small pieces. Add to the salad bowl along with the salt, olive oil, and lemon juice. Com‐ bine well and serve immediately.

Be sure to check out Lauren Shockey’s recently published  Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris.