The ProsenPeople

Food, Music and Meshugas: Bringing the Lower East Side to Life

Thursday, December 01, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Chris Moriarty wrote about writing her new book and songs of hope and failureShe will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

One of my main goals in writing The Inquisitor’s Apprentice was to bring the Lower East Side to life for my own kids and make it a place they’d want to visit and learn more about. And what brings the past to life better than foodmusic, and theater?

Of course there’s a plethora of great books about every aspect of life on the Lower East Side. But here -- as cultural comfort food for the soul -- are my favorite books about food, klezmer, and Yiddish theater.

The best book bar none about food on the Lower East Side is Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Ziegleman turns bare bones menus into a comprehensive account of how immigrant families worked, shopped, ate, and lived on the Lower East Side. Her portraits of the five 
families are sensitive, beautifully written, and at times deeply moving. And the book is packed to the gills with gems of forgotten culinary history. Such as the fact that shmaltz was mostly made with goose fat until the 1930s, when Jewish gangsters began to run illegal chicken farming operations near the East River. Who knew?

There are a number of excellent books about Klezmer, but my favorite is David Saposnik’s Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. As someone who grew up in folksinging circles where people bragged about having known Bobby Zimmerman ‘back when’ or made out in the back seat of a car with Pete Seeger (true story, seriously), I really enjoyed the way Saposnik blends the history of klezmer with a firsthand account of the Klezmer revival and its ties to the larger folk music scene.

Stefan Kanfer’s Stardust Lost: the Triumph, Tragedy and Meshugas of the Yiddish Theater in America might just be my favorite nonfiction book of the last decade. There is a charm to this book which is difficult to describe. Sure, Kanfer has great material to work with: the glamour of Thomashevsky, the star power of David Kessler, the terrible irony of Yiddish theater reaching its apex as an art form just as the gates to Ellis Island were slamming shut.

But Kanfer brings a light touch to his material, and a prose style that combines humor and tragedy almost as deftly as the great artists he writes about. Stardust Lost is one of the very few nonfiction books that I’ve actually reread just for the sheer fun of it.

Nahma Sandrow’s much heftier Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater is less of an introduction to Yiddish theater than a sumptuous banquet for those who already know and love it. She chronicles major and minor figures, covering material that might only get a cursory mention in more general histories. Her writing is scholarly yet highly readable. And the book is a treasury of delicious stories about the flamboyant lives and scandalous loves of Yiddish theater’s famous and not-so-famous. If there are any Yiddish theater fans on your Hanukkah list, this is a book they’ll want to curl up with on a cold winter evening.

Chris Moriarty's most recent book, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, is now available.

Songs of Hope and Failure

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Chris Moriarty wrote about why she wrote The Inquisitor's Apprentice. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

So the tents have come down at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street is over. Or, as the more hopeful would have it, it has morphed into Occupy Everywhere. I hope they’re right. I hope Occupy Wall Street does become Occupy Everywhere. I hope the issues of the 99 percent become a focus of the upcoming Presidential campaign. And I hope real, lasting, meaningful change comes of this movement.

But just for a moment I’d like to look at the other side of the coin.

I’d like to sing the praises of failure. I’d like to point out that failure is in fact the universal fate of truly transformative social, political, or religious movements. And I’d like to argue that graceful failure matters just as much for revolutionaries as it does for source code and suspension bridges.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about graceful failure ever since Simchat Torah. This year it fell just after the Occupy Wall Street march on Times Square. My husband and I were more spectators than marchers, since we had two sleepy kids in tow. But a few days later when I looked at the bright faces of the children gathered under the tent of the upraised prayer shawls, whispering about important things like chocolate while we grownups droned on overhead about death and creation, I suddenly remembered the faces I’d seen streaming out of Times Square after the march.

It was a very New York crowd: a crowd of every age and color and social class. There was a radiant joy and hope in those faces that is all too rare in America today. And the sight of that great flood of humanity streaming across Manhattan reminded me powerfully of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic words about justice rolling down like a mighty river.

Of course justice never did roll down like a mighty river. If it had, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate crime blog would be a lot quieter than it is. And the statistics on African-American children in poverty and African-American men in prison would not be source of national shame. The history of transformational politics in America is essentially a lesson in failing, failing again, and failing better. The late Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to documenting this history. And more recently two wonderful books -- John Nichols’s The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism and James R. Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A ShortStory of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided GildedAge America -- have documented this underground history.

Martin Luther King knew this history. And he had a theologian’s grasp of the readings that waft over the heads of the children in synagogues all over the world each Simchat Torah. King understood that failure is the fate of all truly transformational social movements. If you read through the arc of his life and writings, you see him always pushing toward the next goal, peering around the next bend in the road, reminding people that the moment you begin to reify a movement -- to become infatuated with success or paralyzed by the fear of failure -- you have started the slow slide from revolution to institution, from transformation to status quo. This was one of his great contributions to American politics, though it’s one that is a lot harder to quantify and celebrate than his more tangible successes.

People like to tell fairy tales, of course. And as a fantasy writer I’d be the last person to claim that fairy tales are mere escapism. Fantasy turns a magic mirror on our world that can reveal long-accepted injustices and inspire us to transform society in light of our highest ideals. But many fairy tales have an insidious lie at their hearts: the promise of a happily ever after where conflict and corruption are banished; the promise that slaying dragons is a once-in-a-lifetime event, something you do right before sailing off to what James Thurber (tongue firmly in cheek as usual) called ‘the blessed isles of Ever After.’

But in real life there are no blessed isles of Ever After. In real life Moses dies in the desert. In real life Martin Luther King, Jr. died just as he was beginning to take on the truly intractable problems of socioeconomic injustice in America. In real life the promised land is always on the other side of the river -- and transformative social movements are always crushed or corrupted, diluted or deflected, or simply lost in the flood of daily trivia.

So as we talk about what it means that the tents have come down, we should remind ourselves that it was never a question of whether Occupy Wall Street would fail. It was only a question of when. Occupy Wall Street will inevitably fail, just as all truly radical attempts at transformation fail. But if it fails well, then it will have brought us to the bank of the river. And it will have given us the courage to learn from our failure, turn back to the beginning of the scroll, and risk everything once again in a new act of creation.

Like so much of the Jewish liturgy, Simchat Torah is a ritual that meets you wherever you are in life and seems to impart new wisdom from year to year. As a parent I see it mainly as a time to give thanks for the gift of children and reaffirm my commitment to their Jewish education. But this year I was struck by the great gift that the ritual gives to our children: the gift of teaching them that failure is, if not exactly sweet, then at least part of the life’s cycle and no more to be feared than any other part.

That’s not a gift most of us are very good at giving our children in real life. Don’t get me wrong; kids certainly get plenty of chances to watch their parents fail. But we rarely do it gracefully. Usually we look around for someone else to blame. Or we lie to ourselves -- especially in the realm of politics -- settling for the achievable compromise and then reacting with fury when anyone has the chutzpah to remind us that we once hoped for bigger and better things. Simchat Torah cuts through the denial, in the most simple and unsentimental way imaginable.

And so we sing our songs of hope and failure. We put up our tents even though we know they will be taken down. We tell our children that the Torah is as sweet as honey. We tell them about Moses dying in the desert within sight of the promised land. And then we turn the scroll back to the beginning, and we start a new year of struggle, and we hope we fail better next time.

Chris Moriarty's most recent book, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, is now available.

JLit Links

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Book Cover of the Week: Apples from Shinar

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Wesleyan University Press re-issued the classic collection of poetry Apples from Shinar this past April:


Read on!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Now a book...

JBC Bookshelf: 2012 Preview

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

 

As you may have noticed, we've been rather busy over the last few months. We're excited that our first four-color, and newly redesigned, Jewish Book World is out to subscribers (you can check it out digitally here) and that we've revealed our new online look to the world. With our new website, readers can now browse hundreds of reviews online, share them with friends, and tweet them to the world.  Plus, new reviews will be added daily, as well as new book club questions, interviews, and book trailers. Another great feature of the new site is our calendar listings. If you have a Jewish literary event you want our readers to know about, be sure to send them to us under the "submit an event" tab. The final big change is the name our blog and its new home on the main JBC website: The ProsenPeople (hehe, get it?). And, with that, a new name for our blogging series with MyJewishLearning: The Visiting Scribe. Now on to the latest books on the JBC Bookshelf:

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank: Stories, Nathan Englander (February 2012, Alfred A. Knopf)

While you wait for this one to be published, check out Englander's first collection of stories

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, A.J. Jacobs (April 2012, Simon & Schuster)

The latest from Jacobs, the author of The Guinea Pig Diaries, The Know It All, and The Year of Living Biblically 

Hot Pink, Adam Levin (March 2012, McSweeney's)

Just slightly shorter than Levin's debut novel The Instructions...

Broadway Baby, Alan Shapiro (January 2012, Algonquin Books)

The debut novel from the poet Alan Shapiro

When Telling the Truth Is Wrong

Monday, November 28, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Everybody thinks it's wrong to tell lies, but are there times when it's wrong to tell the truth? Renowned theologian Joseph Telushkin has a surprising answer.


 

Why I Wrote "The Inquisitor's Apprentice"

Monday, November 28, 2011 | Permalink
Chris Moriarty's The Inquisitor's Apprentice is now available. She will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

When I try to explain why I wrote The Inquisitor’s Apprentice – and why it’s emphatically not a Jewish Narnia a la Michael Weingrad — I always end up telling people that this is the book I wrote for my children.

Basically, I wrote it because I was a frustrated mother who wanted my son to be able to read a boy wizard book where the Jewish kid got to be the hero. That was the first kernel of the idea that has become the NYPD Inquisitor books: me rereading the books I remembered from my childhood, and then reading the new books that had been written since then, and realizing that the book I wanted my son to be able to read still wasn’t out there.

I wanted a children’s fantasy about a Jewish kid. And I wanted a book with all the magic, adventure, and humor of my childhood favorites, but whose mythology, worldview and characters would celebrate our family’s roots, beliefs and values.

I might as well be honest about it and admit that those values were hot pink. I grew up in left-wing New York political circles, in a predominantly Jewish but significantly multiethnic community that had its own distinctive hagiography (the Lincoln Brigade and Freedom Riders), family stories (the Rosenbergs, the McCarthy blacklist, the Peekskill riots), music (can you say Hootenanny?) and even summer camps (my Mom went to Camp Redwing. Get it, wink, wink, Redwing?)

My husband grew up only a few miles away from me. Until the most recent Manhattan construction boom you could actually see my parents’ apartment building from his parents’ apartment building if you knew where to look. But he grew up in a New York that embodied a completely different version of the Jewish-American experience. His grandfather emigrated from Russia, went to work in the garment district, saved up his money, went into wholesale, and had two sons who both grew up to be cardiologists. My grandparents were atheists, his were Orthodox. My grandparents marched on Washington, his retired to Florida. And — this last sentence says it all, really — I grew up on the Upper West Side, he grew up on the Upper East Side.

I wanted to share both sides of that New York heritage with my children. I wanted to tell them about the Vaudeville musicians and sweatshop workers, the rabbis and the wobblies, the grandfather who grew up on Avenue J, and the grandmother who grew up in Greenwich Village. I wanted to take my kids back to the Lower East Side a hundred years ago, and let them see first-hand the lives, the struggles, and the values of their great-grandparents. I wanted to celebrate the special magic of New York — and the equally special magic of the loud, zany, eccentric and argumentative New Yorkers I grew up around. I wanted to get my son excited about being Jewish, excited about the Lower East Side, and curious about the vibrant intersection of Judaism and left-wing politics that contributed shaped not only our own family’s history but much of American history throughout the 20th century.

And … well … if he developed a taste for klezmer, too, I wasn’t exactly going to cry about it.

In one sense, of course, this was a deeply Narnia-esque project. Because, let’s be honest, it was all about proselytizing. But the proselytizing wasn’t aimed at other people’s kid’s, only at my own. And it was about telling my children where they came from, not telling them where I thought they should go in life. I wanted to write a sort of family origin myth, one that went to the heart of what I hope my children will value in their own complex, multiethnic, but emphatically Jewish heritage. And if there was any preaching going on, then it had a lot less in common with C. S. Lewis’s Christian apologetics than with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride – a book that uses humor, romance and magic to drive home the underlying moral of “Hey, would it kill you to turn off the TV and listen to your grandfather’s stories once in a while?”

Those stories are what it’s really about for me. Stories of grandparents and great-aunts and uncles that were passed on around kitchen tables over three generations, that made me and my husband who we are, and that will continue to shape our children long after we ourselves are gone. Building fantasy out of those stories is not about resurrecting a mythical lost medieval world in which my children can escape from the complexity and moral ambiguity of real life, but about shedding the transformational light of fantasy on this world: the one my children will build their future in. And recasting our family’s story as fantasy is the best way I’ve found to share my own questions about faith, politics, ethnicity, and what it means to be Jewish in America with my children.

I say questions instead of answers because, as every parent knows, we cannot force our children to accept our answers in life. We can only share our questions with them. We do this in the hope that they will find better and wiser answers than we can yet imagine. And one of the ways we do it is by telling them the story of where they come from. 


The Inquisitor’s Apprentice is my attempt to do that. And if it’s wrapped up in a New York fairy tale, with a little romance, and a big dose of slapstick humor? Well … love, laughter, and fantasy are some of the best ways humans have of making sense of our world.

Chris Moriarty's children's fantasy debut, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. The New York Times praised its successful blend of magic, Judaism, and New York history, and Bookpage called it "a book for anyone who has ever thought that maybe there is more to this world than what we can see." Chris science fiction novels have won the Philip K. Dick Award and been nominated for numerous other awards.

When I Went to Synagogue

Wednesday, November 23, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Anna Solomon wrote for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about Jews in the West and a grandmother’s secrets. Her novel, The Little Bride, is now available.

We don't belong to a synagogue. My husband and I have defended this in various ways over the years. We wouldn’t go enough. It costs a lot. We’ll join when our daughter is old enough to go to Hebrew School. But beneath all these justifications – at least for me – there’s a less practical, more spiritual concern: the synagogues we visit don’t feel like home.

I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of a small, tightly-knit community of Jews, all of whom went to the only synagogue in town. The synagogue had originally been a church, but to me, as a child, it was perfect. I knew the smell of the wooden pews, the sound of the rabbi singing (there was no cantor), the feel of my tights on the basement rec hall tiles. My mother had been taking me since I was six months old and more than anything else, I felt known and loved there, especially by the older people who ruffled my hair and kissed my cheeks.

There was one man I loved more than all the rest: Maurice, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who sat with me at services every Saturday morning in the two years leading up to my bat mitzvah. I loved Maurice’s soft voice, his accent, his kind eyes winking at me as we turned the pages of the prayer book together, and the beautiful Sephardic tunes he sang.

A few years ago, the Gloucester synagogue burned to the ground. I felt devastated yet distant – we were living in Brooklyn at the time – and didn’t dare go visit the spot until the rebuilding of a new temple had begun. Finally, this past summer, the new synagogue was completed. It’s about as different as it could be from the old one: modern lines, a soaring roof line, sand-colored bricks that evoke Israel.

In September, I entered the new building for the first time: I was there with my musician friend Clare Burson to perform a literary-musical collaboration based on my first novel, The Little Bride.

The room in which we performed – with high ceilings and white walls – felt somewhat sterile at first. There was a different feel to the place, a different smell, a different quality of light without the old stained glass windows. And then, as people began to arrive, there were different faces. Many of them I knew, but many I didn’t, and more importantly, many people whose faces I longed to see were gone, including Maurice.

These absences hit me hard as I got up to introduce our performance. I tried to say something – “I’m thinking of the people who aren’t here tonight, too” – but I choked up. In the audience, people nodded – many eyes filled with tears. It seemed nothing more needed saying. Clare and I began to play and the room filled with a kind of electricity, coming not only from us but from the audience, too. People held hands, and swayed, and listened with such an intensity they seemed to make their own music.

By the end of the night, I felt comfortable in this new place. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It wasn’t home. And somehow knowing this made me feel free. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughter to a synagogue near where we live now, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the unfamiliar faces, the strangeness, didn’t make me want to run away. I liked the service. I liked the people. I could see how, with a little time, it might become a place where we belong.

Visit Anna Solomon's official website here.

December Twitter Book Club: The Book of Life

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Sharon Bruce


While trying to save his marriage, a father struggles to reconnect with his newly devout son. A pure-hearted artist finds his devotion cruelly tested, while his true love tries to repent for the biggest mistake of her life... 

Forced together on a trip from Manhattan to Rhode Island, a father and son attempt to reconnect over lobster, cigarettes, and a buried secret. And in the collection’s daring first story, an arrogant businessman begins a forbidden affair during the High Holidays...

The Book of Life is an unforgettable collection of stories about faith, family, grief, love, temptation, and redemption. Written in clear, crystalline prose, these stories signal the arrival of an exciting and bold new writer. We are excited to announce Stuart Nadler as December's featured Twitter Book Club author!

Join the Jewish Book Council and author Stuart Nadler to discuss The Book of Life on Tuesday, December 13th from 12:30 pm- 1:10 pm EST, and keep an eye out on Twitter for our next giveaway– a signed copy of the novel!

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.