The ProsenPeople

Report on the 12th Annual Jewish Children’s Book Conference

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Barbara Krasner, the coordinator of our annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Conference, reports on this year’s conference over at her blog, The Whole Megillah:

Anyone who doubted that the annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators conference in New York City would continue its longstanding tradition of excellence as sponsorship and venue moved from the 92nd Street Y to the Jewish Book Council (JBC) and the Center for Jewish History would have been proven wrong yesterday.

About 40 registrants sat lecture-style in the Kovno Room listening intently to a superb line-up of speakers, including authors, editors, and agents. About half the audience had attended the conference in previous years. Continue reading here.

Everything We Need to Know

Tuesday, November 23, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Ruth Franklin wrote about sharing a stage with Yann Martel. She is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.

I’m occasionally asked whether I really think that at this late date, sixty years on, anything new can be said about the Holocaust. But people have been asking this question virtually since the end of the war.

When François Mauriac famously encountered the young Elie Wiesel in Paris in the early 1950s, he was amazed, as he would write in the introduction to Night, that Wiesel’s book, “coming as it does after so many others and describing an abomination such as we might have thought no longer had any secrets for us, is different, distinct, and unique nevertheless.” Reviewing Piotr Rawicz’s surrealist Holocaust novel Blood from the Sky in 1964, Theodore Solotaroff wrote that “by now there has been a glut of books and articles, reminiscences and diaries, documentary histories and objective analyses that tell us everything we need to know about life in the ghettoes and prisons and death camps.” And yet those who write about the Holocaust continued to surprise then, as they still do now.

A few weeks ago I attended an informal talk by Yale historian Timothy Snyder about his new book, Bloodlands, which has already been hailed as a breakthrough work despite the well-plowed ground of its subject. What’s unique about Snyder’s book is that he approaches World War II from a geographical perspective rather than focusing, as most historians have done, on specific nations or political figures. Looking at the map of Europe, Snyder realized that the vast majority of the slaughter in World War II took place in a fairly small area: Poland, the Baltic states, and parts of the western Soviet Union. In this region, which he calls the “bloodlands,” fourteen million civilians died, as well as one-half of all the soldiers killed in the war. His book investigates what happened there.

Snyder argues that Auschwitz, which has come to be understood as a symbol of the Holocaust, “is in fact only the beginning of knowledge, a hint of the true reckoning with the past still to come.” To focus on the victims of that camp “excludes those who were at the center of the historical event.” His version of the story establishes an entirely different framework, focusing first on the destruction of the vast majority of Poland’s Jewish community — about 1.5 million in all — at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor in 1942, and then on the “mass murder by bullets” carried out by the Einsatzgruppen in eastern Poland and the western Soviet Union during the preceding year, in which about 1.7 million Jews perished. Astonishingly, by the end of 1942, when Auschwitz had become fully operational, the Holocaust was “mostly over” — two-thirds of its victims already killed.

The question that lingers after reading Snyder’s remarkable book is why Auschwitz has come so powerfully to symbolize the Holocaust if it was actually an exception to the general rules of slaughter. Snyder points out that “we know about Auschwitz because there were survivors, and there were survivors because Auschwitz was a labor camp as well as a death factory.” In contrast, from the camps that were established solely for the purposes of extermination there remain almost no survivors: 67 from Treblinka, around 50 from Sobibor, less than a handful from Chelmno and Belzec. Snyder also comments that the Auschwitz survivors were largely Western European Jews who tended to return to their home countries after the war, where they were free to write and publish and their memoirs could enter the public consciousness. The Eastern European Jews, who were much less likely to survive, “continue to be marginalized from the memory of the Holocaust.”

But the reason might be simply, as he said when I posed the question to him, that “Auschwitz is enough.” Faced with what so many have described as the prime embodiment of hell on earth, how many of us have the courage to search for other, greater hells?

Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction is now available. Check back all week for her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Holes

Monday, November 22, 2010 | Permalink

Ruth Franklin is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Ah, fall – the season of hot apple cider, leaves crunching underfoot, and … Jewish book fairs. As I write this, bleary and jet-lagged, I’ve just returned from San Francisco’s terrific Jewish Bookfest, where I did an event with Yann Martel. As much of the world’s reading population knows, Martel is the author of Life of Pi, a saga about a boy stranded on a raft with a Bengal tiger, which won the Booker a few years ago and promptly became a runaway international hit. I, on the other hand, just published my first book, a collection of essays about Holocaust literature focused on the tension between imagination and memory in works by writers such as Primo LeviElie WieselJerzy Kosinski, and a number of others. Heavy stuff, and not always what people want to be entertained with on a Sunday afternoon.

Martel’s new novel, Beatrice and Virgil, deals with the Holocaust, so our pairing wasn’t quite as bizarre as it might seem. Still, I was more than a little anxious about the prospect of sharing the stage with such a prominent author. To his great credit, Martel put me at ease immediately. I don’t know what I was expecting an international superstar to look like, but certainly not this slight, unassuming man dressed in blue jeans and leather jacket who immediately started chatting away about Holocaust literature when we met at the airport. Each of us had been reading the other’s book on the plane, it turned out, and we both emerged full of ideas and questions.

The opening of Martel’s novel describes the genesis of the book in a lightly fictionalized way, so I knew that he had spent much of the last half-decade or so obsessed with the very same subject as I had: the difficult question of how a catastrophe like the Holocaust can be represented in art. Ever since the first years after the war, when Theodor Adorno famously proclaimed that writing poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, there has been a deep-seated uncertainty about the legitimacy of such representations, which many scholars and critics have seen as a distortion of the grim historical truth: “Art takes the sting out of suffering,” as one theologian put it. However, as I argue in my book, there’s really no avoiding art. It’s simply not possible to say, as Elie Wiesel and others have done, that the only acceptable way to represent the Holocaust is through testimonies or memoirs, because even these works—if they are effectively written—are profoundly shaped by creative imagination. Every canonical work of Holocaust literature involves some graying of the line between fiction and reality. And many of them, including Wiesel’s Night and Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, have been identified, at different points in their publishing histories, as both memoirs and novels.

Martel’s book opens with an account of a writer who has created a different kind of book about the Holocaust: a work of fiction paired with an essay, to be published back-to-back within one binding in flip-book style. In a scene that is at once hilarious and excruciating, various bigwigs at the writer’s publishing house take him out to an elegant lunch over which they savage both his manuscript and the flip-book concept. (It won’t work, one of them tells him, because in a book with two front covers there would be no place to put the bar code.) He leaves demoralized, abandons writing for some time, and moves to an unnamed city abroad. There he meets a taxidermist who requests his help with a play he is writing: a dialogue between two characters, Beatrice and Virgil, who, we soon discover, are taxidermied animals—a donkey and a howler monkey. As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that what we are reading is an allegory—perhaps even an allegory within an allegory—that has certain resonances with the destruction of the Jews.

Martel’s protagonist, early on, says that he wrote his previous novel “because there was a hole in him that needed filling.” If novels can fill holes in people, can they also help to fill holes in history? I didn’t get a chance to ask Martel this question, but I imagine that he would have said yes.

Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction is now available. Check back all week for her posts on the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Planning on Joining the Israeli Army?

Friday, November 19, 2010 | Permalink

Joel Chasnoff has been blogging for the JBC on his NETWORK tour all month.

After my reading at the Dallas JCC last night, I was approached by a teenager who told me that he, too, plans to join the Israeli Army.

“Are you out of your mind?” I said, only half joking.

He smiled. “Were you?” he asked.

It’s not the first time this kind of thing happened. My book, The 188th Crybaby Brigade, is a brutally honest description of life in the IDF. There aren’t many other books like it, so it seems to be the book of choice among teenagers (and even some in their early twenties) who are seriously considering joining up.

In fact, ever since my book came out last spring, I’ve gotten quite a slew of emails from young Jews, both men and women, who want advice. They ask about induction procedures, the battery of entrance tests, and what kind of paperwork they need to file. But their number one question is: “Do you think I should do it?”

It’s a heavy question. Burdensome. A question with many implications and one I’m not necessarily qualified to answer.

So I always tell him or her the same thing: that I don’t want to be responsible for someone dying on the battlefield (or in training, as the case may be); but, if they feel like they’ll regret it for the rest of their lives if they don’t serve, then they should do it.

“But be sure to check out my book first,” I warn them. “You might change your mind after you read it.”

Check by later this month for most posts from Joel on his NETWORK tour.

This is a Soul

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Note: This post was originally written last week during the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly, a day after this one.

Two inspiring mornings in a row. NETWORK author Marilyn Berger (This is a Soul) shared her story with a very lucky audience this morning at the GA. Prompted by stories about Dr. Rick Hodes, Marilyn traveled to Ethiopia several years ago to learn more about the man who moved to Ethiopia in the early 90′s to help with Operation Solomon, an operation which helped Ethiopian Jews move to Israel, and never left. Dr. Hodes has spent the past twenty years helping Jews and non-Jews alike throughout Ethiopia, Africa, and nearby regions. This is a Soul tells not only the story about this incredible man, a man recently honored by ABC as a “Person of the Week” and a finalist in 2007 for “CNN Heroes”, but also Marilyn’s own story about traveling to Ethiopia and about a boy who changed her life.

An incredible book and an incredible story. Read more here.

Parents: Need an inspiring giveaway for your child’s bar/bat mitzvah? This is it.

J Lit Links

Wednesday, November 17, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

  • HTMLGiant has lots of Jewy stuff right now:

1) Kyle Minor’s post “Jealous of Jews” looks at some of our greats:

…Roth, Bellow, Malamud, Ozick, Singer (the list could be much longer, but these are five of my nine or ten favorite 20th century writers) not only shamed Dobson, Peretti, Lindsay, and Barna, but they also shamed a generation of very good American writers by simply being better than almost everyone else on grounds of language, structure, fire, music, moral weight, and sheer storytelling prowess.

And, our buddies “Etgar Keret, Adam Kirsch, Shalom Auslander, Joshua Cohen, Adam Levin, and Jason Diamond” also got a shout-out!

Continue reading here.

2) Lily Hoang reviews JSFoer’s (“[a] favorite writer-to-hate”) Tree of Codes here.

3) Rachel Shukert! Reviewed here.

  • The Reform rabbinical association “tackl[es] the “k” word head-on” withThe Sacred Table: Creating a Jewish Food Ethic…“mak[ing] the first Reform guide to Jewish dietary practice so significant.” Continue reading here.
  • Shortlisted for the 2010 Guardian First Book Award: Ned Beauman’s Boxer, Beetle, featuring a 9-toed Jewish boxer. Continue reading here.

New Reviews from Winter JBW

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Check out a few sample reviews from the winter issue of Jewish Book World:

Jews and the Civil War: A Reader 
Jonathan D. Sarna & Adam Mendelsohn, eds.
Reviewed by Carol Poll

Kosher Nation: Why More And More Of America’s Food Answers To A Higher Authority
Sue Fishkoff
Reviewed by Barbara M. Bibel

Life as a Visitor 
Angella M. Nazarian
Reviewed by Saba Soomekh

Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood 
Martin Lemelman
Reviewed by Gary Katz

Sarah: The Life of Sarah Bernhardt 
Robert Gottlieb
Reviewed by Maron L. Waxman

Moses Mendelssohn: Sage of Modernity 
Shmuel Feiner; Anthony Berris, trans.
Reviewed by Maron L. Waxman

The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election 
Todd Gitlin and Liel Leibovitz
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Dolly City 
Orly Castel-Bloom; Dalya Bilu, trans.
Reviewed by Judith Felsenfeld

Eden 
Yael Hedaya; Jessica Cohen, trans.
Reviewed by Dani Crickman

Foreign Bodies 
Cynthia Ozick
Reviewed by Beth Kissileff

The Road 
Vasily Grossman
Reviewed by Danielle Mindess

Super Sad True Love Story 
Gary Shteyngart
Reviewed by Joshua Daniel Edwin

To The End of the Land 
David Grossman; Jessica Cohen, trans.
Reviewed by Maron L. Waxman

Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England 
Anthony Julius
Reviewed by Jack Fischel

When They Come For Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry
Gal Beckerman
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits And Not-So Kosher Laughs 
Sam Hoffman with Eric Spiegelman
Reviewed by Tami Kamin-Meyer

The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership 
Yehuda Avner; Martin Gilbert, intro.
Reviewed by Jane Wallerstein

A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth In Holocaust Fiction 
Ruth Franklin
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Tree of Codes

Monday, November 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Vanity Fair interviews Jonathan Safran Foer’s on his latest…Tree of Codes:

Tree of Codes was created by slicing out chunks of text from Foer’s favorite novel, The Street of Crocodiles by Polish author Bruno Schulz. The result is a spare, haunting story that appears to hang in negative space on the page. Pretentious? Possibly. But it is also very, very cool. Keep reading.

Joshua Cohen Around the Web

Monday, November 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Joshua Cohen, whose most recent novel, Witz, was published earlier this year, offers criticism and advice around the web:

New York Times review of Adam Levin’s The Instructions

Tablet review of the new translation of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago

Advice from “Ask The Paris Review”

Remembering How to be a Jew

Friday, November 12, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lavie Tidhar wrote about Jewish vampires and Hebrew punks and searching for Osama. His new novel, An Occupation of Angels, is now available.

I’m living in Israel again after seventeen years, which is a bit of a shock. The political discourse has always been ugly here, but it seems to be getting uglier, to the point that you might not want to open your mouth publicly about it. Seventeen years after I left, an 18-year-old with a passion for beaches, science fiction and smoking things that were not strictly legal anywhere but the Netherlands, it’s surprising how little has changed.

There is still an occupation, of course. Still half-hearted peace talks designed to fail, still an unwillingness to understand what it is that is so wrong at the heart of the Jewish state. An unwillingness to acknowledge anything can even be wrong. It occurs to me that we, Israelis, have forgotten what it means to be a Jew. I do not mean putting on tefillin, or going to shul, or knowing our Moses from our Abraham (or our Absalom from our David). As Jews we were never very good at being observant, we were merely good at being Jews. It is partly things like the erasure of Yiddish for Hebrew, the writing of a victorious, patriotic, often vitriolic official history, the changing of our names (my family was Heisikovitz before it was Tidhar), the very re-writing of what it means to be a Jew. We are not diaspora Jews, we were told. We are a new brand of Jew. A sabra. Prickly on the outside, sweet on the inside, yaddy yaddy yadda.

We were the few against the many. We were Masada come again. It didn’t even occur to us that taking as our emblem the small, fanatic cult of suicides that was Masada said more about us than we could understand. We worked so hard at being Israelis that we forgot to be Jews. We forgot, in other words, that Jews had learned, for hundreds and hundreds of years, to live amongst other people.

A people who knew prosecution but did not themselves prosecute. Being a Jew is being a wanderer, traveling light, recognising the folly of possession, of permanence. The Zionist dream of a national home was a glorious dream, and a practical one, and Herzl looked hard for options, from British East Africa to Cyprus and parts of Egypt. It just didn’t work out that way.

I grew up on the lands of an Arab village which is no longer there. It was erased, not even a well remaining, in 1948. Its people are still around, somewhere, perhaps in permanent refugee camps beyond the border, unable to return. To be an Israeli is to be defined against the people whose ghosts are still here, whose children are pressing against the windows and kicking at the doors and asking why.

It is as if, in this new Middle East, the Palestinians have become the true Jews – landless, unwanted, subject to discriminatory laws and checkpoints and young men in uniforms and guns. And the Israelis have become what my grandfather would have called the paritz, the goy lord of the manor with the power over us.

I think we forgot that part of being a Jew is compassion, and a part of it is humility. And we lost both those things. We try so hard to hold on to a small piece of land that we do not think of the people who lived on it, whose trees we uprooted, whose ID documents we now mark with a different colour to ours, whose houses we erased with bulldozers.

We forgot, which is the worst thing of all for a Jew, our history. And without
our history, we are nothing.

Seventeen years after I last lived here, I’m back here again. My dreadlocks are gone, and now I look like any other Arab or Jew. I still like beaches, and science fiction, but I don’t really do that other stuff any more, unless someone might pass it to me at a party. Or there’s always Amsterdam.

I’m still not a very good Jew…

But I’d like to be a better Israeli.

Lavie Tidhar’s HebrewPunk and An Occupation of Angels are now available. His first novel, The Bookman, is out now, and will be followed next year by Camera Obscura.He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning’s Author Blog series.