The ProsenPeople

Jewish Literary Treasures in SF

Friday, August 12, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Looking for any of these?

A history of Jewish New Orleans. A 1970 copy of “Israel on $5 a Day.” Crime novels such as “Murder on the Kibbutz.” A three-volume history of the Jews of Muslim Spain. A 17th-century Biblia Hebraica, printed in Hebrew and Latin. “The Bagel Bible for Bagel Lovers: A Complete Guide to Great Noshing” (second edition).

If so, Henry Hollander is your guy. Located in San Francisco, Hollander’s bookshop boasts some 15,000 volumes of Judaica, including many out-of-print titles.  Sounds like a Jewish book lover’s delight! Read more about Hollander over at  J.Weekly.

JLit Links

Thursday, August 11, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

What Chinese People Think about Jews

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Michael Levy wrote about Jews and Chinese Food. He is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.

My last post began with a list of stereotypes about Jews. We tell jokes; we like Chinese food; etc. While living and teaching in central China a few years ago, I ran into a few stereotypes that were new to me. I was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guizhou Province teaching English at a university WAY off the beaten path. I was one of a small handful of foreigners –- and the only Jew — in a province of 40 million people. My students could be forgiven for a few strange ideas about their guests.

Thus, when one of my students handed in a paper with the title “GREAT JEW” I knew I was in for a few surprises. The letter summarized the status of world Jewry:

Jew in the world:

There are 14 million Jews in the world, 5 million of them are in the Israel, and 6 million in the USA. They have done so many great things for people in the world. They good at jokes, doing business and managing money so that there are a large number of Jewish tycoon in the world…. In the Wall Street which is the controlling financial interests of the United States, it is the world of Jews who dominate the “street.” Jews deserve careful study though their history is pitiful.

The student also included a bullet-point list of facts she had gleaned from her textbooks and from local newspapers:

Einstein is the greatest scientist in the world

*Every Jew has received high education for their family tradition

*Jews can begin law school in the second year in America, because they are advanced in law

Phelps, a swimming Jew, will win many gold medals in the Beijing Olympic Games

Chinese in rural Guizhou Province have some interesting ideas about Jews. What about Chinese in the slightly less bucolic neighborhoods of Manhattan? I decided to test the Jewish knowledge of the staff at Eden Wok on 34th Street, the self-proclaimed “finest Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant and sushi bar.”

First, a word on the food: meh. I really wanted to like the food more, if for no other reason than out of respect for the effort. Truly kosher Chinese food is as strange an idea as Phelps the swimming Jew.

Pork, after all, is to Chinese food what cheese is to Italian food. You take it away, and you’re left with nothing but starch. Still, Eden Wok makes a solid lo mein.

Next, a word on the staff: friendly and — happily — quite knowledgeable about Judaism. Vicky, my waitress, was from Guangdong province. She never met a Jew in China, but “loves Jewish customers.” I showed her my student’s letter and she giggled. “I hope you went easy on her,” she told me. She also gave me a free egg roll.

Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Home in the Morning: September Twitter Book Club

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Permalink

A powerful debut from a new literary talent, this novel tells the story of a Jewish family confronting the tumult of the 1960s—and the secrets that bind its members together.

Jackson Sassaport is a man who often finds himself in the middle. Whether torn between Stella, his beloved and opinionated Yankee wife, and Katherine Marie, the African American girl who first stole his teenage heart; or between standing up for his beliefs and acquiescing to his prominent Jewish family’s imperative to not stand out in the segregated South, Jackson learns to balance the secrets and deceptions of those around him. But one fateful night in 1960 will make the man in the middle reconsider his obligations to propriety and family, and will start a chain of events that will change his life and the lives of those around him forever.

Join the Jewish Book Council and author Mary Glickman to discuss Home in the Morning on Wednesday, September 14th, from 12:30 pm- 1:10 pm EST. Learn more about Mary before book club by checking out the video below!

**Congratulations go out to @robinec for winning the first of our Book Club Giveaways on 8/24! She’ll receive a free copy of Home in the Morning to read before book club!

The How-To, In Case You’re New:

What is a Twitter Book Club?
A twitter book club provides the opportunity for twitter users to engage in real time conversation about a particular, predetermined book. JBC’s book club aims to provide readers with an opportunity to discuss Jewish interest titles with other interested readers electronically.

To participate…

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

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

We hope you’ll join and enjoy the conversation! If you have something to say or a question to ask, feel free to jump in, and don’t forget to include #JBCBooks at the end of any tweet so that other participants can engage with you.

Contending with Catastrophe

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by William Sudry

As the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks approaches, the scars left by that tragedy linger and continue to remind. Americans of every stripe will come together next month to grieve and to reflect.

These events force us to revisit some of the big questions – what to do in the face of paralyzing catastrophe? how to think about deepest evil? – that demand a response.

A forthcoming volume marks the 9/11 decennial and confronts these matters head-on: Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, edited by Michael J. Broyde (Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing).

Contending with Catastrophe is divided into two parts, bringing two aspects of Jewish tradition, the practical and the intellectual, to bear on the events and their aftermath. The first section reproduces a sampling of never-before-seen documents and discusses problems of Jewish law raised by the attacks, presenting the reality of a working religious legal system dealing with pressing issues. The second section is a collection of reflective essays on Jewish ethics and theology by leading Orthodox Jewish rabbis and lay leaders from the United States and Israel.

The book concludes by introducing prayers for the recovery and recognition of the emergency workers at Ground Zero and in memory of the victims of the attacks, both composed for this volume. A prayer for the safety of the United States Armed Forces stationed around the world is also included.

Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, due out this month, can be pre-ordered here. (For free shipping and a 10% pre-publication discount, use the code AFK10 at checkout.)

Book Cover of the Week: Yiddishkeit

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Loving the orange, black, and beige combo on this one…

Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land will be available September 1st from Abrams ComicArts

Exciting arrival

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Guess who showed up at our office today?

Ha, we wish.

Not Fran Drescher.

But the next best thing: Wendy!

Being Wendy, Fran Drescher’s new book for kids, is completely adorable and beautifully designed. It comes out in November.

JBC Bookshelf: Fall Travel

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This fall, travel through history with literature: Vivian Gornick presents a portrait of an early 20th century radical icon; Umberto Eco brings us back to the conspiracies of the 19th century; and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman allows readers to listen in on the Jewish conversation as it has expanded–from the Hebrew Bible to the early 21st century.

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, Vivian Gornick (October 2011, Yale University Press)
A few topics that struck Emma Goldman’s fancy in 1910: anarchism, free love, birth control, women’s rights, homosexuality.

The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco; Richard Dixon, trans. (November 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Eco’s highly anticipated novel set in nineteenth-century Europe. “From the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Europe is in tumult and everyone need’s a scapegoat. But what if, behind all of these conspiracies, both real and imagined, lay one lone man?”

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (November 2011, BlueBridge)
One hundred great Jewish books including biography, spirituality, poetry, fiction, history, and political theory.


Jews and Chinese Food

Monday, August 08, 2011 | Permalink

Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

My therapist once told me a joke: “Chinese culture is old, perhaps 4000 years. But Jewish culture is 1000 years older! The only question is: how did we survive for 1000 years without Chinese food?

He’s a great therapist, but a lousy comedian. Nevertheless, our interaction—like a Chinese box—was layered. We were knee-deep in stereotypes, each containing a grain of truth. Jews are either stand-up comedians or failed stand-up comedians. Jews are either in therapy, therapists themselves, or both. Jews love Chinese food.

I fit all these stereotypes. The last one is particularly true, in large part because I lived in China for three years, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guizhou Province (drop a finger on the dead-center of China, and you’ll likely hit this remote location).

It was a surreal experience. I was one of the only foreigners my students had ever seen, and they reacted to me the way I would react to Chewbacca walking into a classroom. I was stared at. I was feared. I was recruited to play on a university basketball team (the only Jew to ever truly earn the nickname Shaq). I was told I must play Santa Claus in a Walmart.

When things settled down and I was a bit more integrated into the community, I got down to my actual job. I taught grammar and vocabulary to hundreds of kids from tiny farming villages. They, in turn, taught me how to eat everything from millipede to chicken talon. . . and beyond.

Unlike David Sedaris—possibly the worst traveller on earth—I fell in love with the food in China. Notice I did not write “Chinese food.” This is deliberate. “Chinese food” is what I eat every Christmas Eve in America. It is lo mein, wonton soup, and moo shu. It is General Tsao. “Food in China” is not remotely like this. Not remotely.

I love food in China. I also love Chinese food. I also try to keep kosher. Can these three statements co-exist? Over the next week, I will be blogging about my attempt to find the restaurant in New York that best fits all three criteria. As Karl Marx—the most beloved Jew in all of China— once wrote, “Working people of the world unite and find good Kosher Chinese food!”

Check back all week for more posts from Michael Levy, author of the recently published Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.

Our Good Friends the Essermans

Friday, August 05, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia, and telling jokes at church. Her new book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, is now available. 

My husband and I are white people. We shop at R.E.I. for the clothes. We have cousins on both sides who are vegans and have attended more than one bean-filled wedding reception. We could move to Dubuque, Iowa, or Bangor, Maine, if we wanted to, without anyone wondering what on earth we were thinking. If pulled over by a traffic cop for a moving violation, we await him at our driver’s side window with the wide-eyed innocent-looking expectation that the exchange will proceed cordially and without undue suspicion. We are well-acquainted with the many bonuses of what is known on the street as White Skin Privilege.

We were born just this side of the mid-20th-century, to Jewish parents, when ethnicity was on the verge of being accepted as an acceptable American lifestyle. Jerry Lewis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Danny Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were major Jews of our childhood. We weren’t told about the Holocaust.

In 1980, my husband Don Samuel and I, newlyweds, moved to Rome, a northwest Georgia hill-town that hadn’t gotten the news yet that ethnic people were just regular folks. “Where y’all from?” everyone asked us.  Our new neighbors asked us, the landlord asked us, the Big Boy’s waitress asked us, the filling station man asked us. The people down the street whose car had a bumper sticker reading, “Oil Yes, Jews No,” did not ask us.

We’d moved to Rome, Georgia, from Athens, Georgia, after Donny graduated from the UGA School of Law, but our Rome questioners — “Where y’all from?” — felt perplexed rather than satisfied when we replied, “Athens.”  “Athens?” said the Big Boy’s waitress, squinting at us. “Y’all Greeks?”

A variation on “Where y’all from?” was offered by citizens who had once accidentally seen a Woody Allen movie. Those people knowingly asked, “Y’all from New York?”  It made us not want to confess that Donny was from New York.

No matter how we hedged, saying we were from Athens, mentioning that I was born in Macon and that Donny used to work in Brunswick and that we’d gotten married in Savannah, everyone had a sure-fire follow-up question.  “Well, what church do y’all go to?”

Then we had to say it:  “We’re Jewish.”

“Yeah,” they said. Then everyone — everyone — everyone asked the same thing: “Do y’all know the Essermans?”  The mailman asked, the waitress asked, the Dunkin Doughnuts guy asked, the roofer asked.

We had moved to Rome the previous Thursday; no, we hadn’t met the Essermans yet.

A few years earlier, when researching my first book, Praying for Sheetrock, on the wooded Georgia coast, I’d fallen prey to similar interrogations. The rural black people of McIntosh County accurately sensed that, for obscure reasons, I was not part of the local white power structure, and they accepted that. They welcomed me warmly. The local white people, however, with similar intuition, wondered what I was hiding. In the middle of a an interview with the city attorney, the ruddy big-faced man interrupted me, leaned forward across his kitchen table, and asked, “Melissa?  Do you know Morley Safer?”

“Morley Safer?”

“Morley Safer.”

“The anchor on the TV program, 60 Minutes?”

“That’s the fella. You know him?”

“No, I don’t know him.”

“Unh hunh,” he said skeptically.

I had no idea what he was driving at. We pushed on.  A few minutes later he interrupted me again, leaned forward even more confidingly, and probed:  “Melissa, do you know Jesus?”

Now I saw where we were headed. “No, I don’t know Jesus,” I said, “and I don’t know Morley Safer either.”

Now, in Rome, it was the Essermans everyone asked about. But it turned out that asking Jews if they knew the Essermans made a lot more sense than asking them if they knew Morley Safer or Jesus.  The Essermans had immigrated from Latvia in the late 19th century, joining an already-thriving antebellum Rome Jewish Community. Two Esserman brothers opened Esserman’s Department Store on Broad Street in 1896, where it would last for most of a century: a beautiful clothing store with perfume displays and jewelry counters, a children’s department, men’s wear, ladies’ wear, and formal wear, without which the local citizenry might have dressed themselves in overalls made out of feed sacks or, worse, plaid country-club slacks. An Esserman cousin, Joseph Esserman, opened the Lad & Lassie children’s clothing store. The Essermans, short solid people with smooth round heads and thick enthusiastic eyebrows, instantly embraced Donny and me as landsmen, gave us the family discount at the store, included us in the weekly card games attended by other Essermans, and gave us gifts of large oil paintings of Eastern European village scenes created by the living patriarch, Hyman Esserman. We spent most of our two years in Rome, Georgia, hanging out with people forty and fifty years our senior. Because they were Jews.

We immediately joined Rodeph Shalom, a congregation founded in 1875 (its first rabbi had been an Esserman). The handsome hilltop brick synagogue with white pillars had been built in 1937. Until 1955, the temple had had a fulltime rabbi. Now a Reform student rabbi flew to town twice a month from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to lead Shabbat services. She stayed in a motel owned by a couple from India who referred to her as the Rib-Eye. There were about 30 Jews in Rome when we lived there, and a sprinkling of non-Jewish spouses. Several curious local people attended services, too. The moment Donny and I walked into the building for the first time, the entire congregation turned around and breathed, as one: “YOUNG people!” Within the week, Donny was on the board and I was president of Sisterhood. After our very first Friday night service, we invited our newest friends, Oscar and Ruth Borochoff, to come home with us for a piece of cake. I guess they were in their seventies. The moment they entered our house, Mrs. Borochoff stepped into our tiny kitchen, put on an apron, and insisted on washing the dinner dishes still soaking in the sink. I had to drag her in embarrassment into the living room. These were the nicest people in the world.

When these coiffed, belted, perfumed ladies showed up at my house for the first Sisterhood meeting of my presidency, I, age 27, suggested that we become a branch of Amnesty International. They liked the idea very much. On our second meeting, I handed out literature about the iron-fisted military dictatorship of President Augusto Pinochet of Chile. Then we all wrote letters on behalf of Chilean political prisoners. The ladies wrote with flowing penmanship on scalloped pink stationary. “Dear Mr. Pinochet,” wrote one, “I am just so very disappointed to hear about this behavior.”

Donny and I lived in Rome when Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I came out. It didn’t open in Rome, though.  Porky’s opened in Rome. People lined up to see The Cannonball Runin Rome. Caddyshack was wildly popular in Rome. Chariots of Fire did not open in Rome. We had to drive an hour and a half out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, across the clean rivers and past the discount carpet outlets, to the traffic-clogged state capital of Atlanta to see movies with Jews in them.  In the famous closing sequence of History of the World Part I—“Jews in Space”—space shuttles shaped like Jewish stars, with Kosher written in Hebrew along the wings, whiz across the solar system, while rabbis peer anxiously out of their windshields through binoculars and then do some Israeli dancing.  The Jews are in space, they sing with Yiddish accents.

They’re zooming along, protecting the Hebrew race.
The Jews are in space.
If trouble appears they’ll put it right back in its place…

“If this movie ever comes to Rome, people won’t understand this part,” we told our friends in Atlanta as we exited the theater.

“Whenever they sing, ‘The Jews are in space,’” said our friend Allen Baverman, “they’ll need a subtitle that says, ‘The Essermans are in space.’”

Our next-door-neighbor in Rome, a railroad man and Viet Nam vet named Steve Long, couldn’t delineate what about us was urban, what was college-educated, and what was Jewish. He was fascinated by every aspect of our lives (like why we subscribed to the New York Times instead of the Rome News-Tribune which carried the day’s TV listings and boy scout announcements) but it was the Jewish angle that intrigued him the most. He drove Donny all over North Georgia in search of a box of Passover Matzo that spring. While Donny tried to explain to yet another grocery store manager what exactly he was looking for, Steve leaned over and confided, man to man: “It’s some kind of Jew food.” He popped in one day when we were steaming artichokes for dinner.  He got that strange half-smile on his face he got whenever he knew he was approaching something really peculiar.  He donned an oven mitt, lifted the pot lid, and sprang back in shock.  He returned to stand in the steam, sadly regarding the artichokes for a long minute, replaced the lid, and turned to face us.  “I know, I know,” he said, already chuckling and putting up his hands in self-defense. “It’s Jew food.”

Something is gained, of course, in the increasingly widespread acceptance of ethnicities in America, in the mushrooming of small restaurants with international cuisine, in the rainbow-hued classrooms of American children, in the Babel of tongues heard on the streets even of moderate-sized and small cities, and in the fact of Republican politicians trying to use words like chutzpah.  Actually, a lot is gained. We’re all the richer in this country. If anything at all is lost, I guess it’s the way we 20 or 25 Jews in Rome—almost as far out of our element as Mel Brooks’s Jews in Space—embraced one another, laughed together, gathered—the entire community—under one roof to make a seder, to kindle a menorah, to celebrate our daughter Molly’s baby-naming. Far from the Latvian-Jewish world left behind by the Essermans, and from the Lithuanian-Jewish world left by my grandparents, we made a Jewish village in Rome, Georgia. Sometimes it takes a shtetl.

 Melissa Fay Greene has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's author blogging series.