The ProsenPeople

Love is the Answer

Tuesday, October 02, 2012 | Permalink

Lenore Weiss's most recent collection, Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’m in the process of relocating to Monroe, Louisiana from Oakland, California. Love is the reason and answer.

Most of my friends who live in California where I’ve resided for the past 20 or so years can only relate to New Orleans—thank you Gulf Oil Spill, Hurricane Katrina, and also Louis Armstrong.

Monroe is about four and a half hours away from New Orleans, located in the northeast corner of the state. When I explain this to my friends, they respond with a clouded look of pity.

I wonder to myself, "Can I move to the south from Oakland, California, a city that is smack dab in the middle of the flourishing Bay Area where almost anything is possible to a place where there are no direct flights from or to anywhere and frankly, where I feel like I'm a converso amid blocks and blocks of Baptist churches, where I’m always sweating in 95 degree plus summer heat?"

Okay. You got the drift. So back in the Bay, I was working in high-tech. A specialized niche as a writer. Now what, I ask myself, recently returned from a writing workshop in Istanbul where I attended Shabbos services at an Orthodox Sephardic synagogue, Neve Shalom. The synagogue was bombed twice, the last time being on November 15, 2003. The bombing turned the synagogue into ruins and killed many people. Since then, the building has been restored. Security is tight. I had to submit a copy of my passport several days in advance to be admitted.

The once active community surrounding the synagogue, located near the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu District of Istanbul, has dispersed. Services are held only on Shabbat mornings, special holidays, or occasionally rented out for weddings.

Mel Kenne, a poet and expatriate who translates many outstanding Turkish poets and who lives near the Galata Tower, told me that he often hears Jewish neighbors speaking Spanish. So it seems that all congregants living in the area have not completely moved away.

When I left the synagogue after Kiddush, an accordion player stepped out on the cobblestone streets and started to play Tumbalalaika, a well-loved Ashkenazi tune. Istanbul is a mélange of languages, cultures, and civilizations. When I was there, I wrote a poem entitled, “Faith Has No Name.”

So what am I going to do in Monroe? I don’t want to be a cashier or a security guard, job posts that frequently appear on indeed.com. There’s a different economic basis here, a back and forth between environmental cleanup and ongoing pollution thanks to companies like Dow Chemical, Georgia Pacific, and refineries that form the underpinnings of Baton Rouge. Maybe after years of being a single mom and raising a family, I could dedicate myself to writing fulltime…I mull the thought over and it mulls well.

Check back all week for more from Lenore Weiss.

New Reviews

Friday, September 28, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


 

Mr. Expert on God

Friday, September 28, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Theodore Ross wrote about the Manhattan eruv and a revision for his paperback. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

One of the strange, but nice, things that come from publishing a book is that people start to take you seriously—with certain exceptions. Largely as a result of my having written Am I a Jew? I was invited to teach a class on religious journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. This has been a fun and challenging experience for me as someone with a full time job as an editor of Men’s Journal magazine, a book currently on the shelves, and a third child, who is just a month old.

The students in my class are all bright, ambitious, and sophisticated. They are at the graduate level, which means they can write, understand reporting, and want to engage with the world in a serious way. I find myself humbled to think that they show up once a week to hear me talk about telling stories that involve religion and spirituality. I also find myself pretty impressed with me. NYU! Graduate students! I must be doing something right, no?

Well, there is one group of people in my life not quite as impressed—my family. Each and every one of them—my wife first and foremost—have had the same reaction to learning I would be teaching this class. Religious journalism? Try to hear the tone of incredulity reach across genders and generations from my wife to my mother to my father to my brother and beyond. A big shot! Mr. Expert on God, here.

This is how we keep a head from growing inflated.

Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes Lapsed Jews, and One Man's Search for Himself. His writing has appeared in the pages (print and electronic) of the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, theAtlantic, Tablet, Saveur, Tin House, and a variety of other journals and newspapers. He is also the articles editor ofMen’s Journal magazine.

Book Cover of the Week: Vaclav and Lena (Paperback)

Thursday, September 27, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of Haley Tanner being named a 2012 "5 under 35" honoree by the National Book Foundation, this week's "Book Cover of the Week" is the paperback edition of her novel Vaclav and Lena, published this past February by Random House. Read Haley's posts for the Visiting Scribe here and also check out fellow 2012 "5 under 35 honoree" and Visiting Scribe Stuart Nadler's posts here.


Revisions for the Paperback

Thursday, September 27, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Theodore Ross wrote about the Manhattan eruv. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I found my first error in my book in this sentence in the introductory chapter, “Hidden Jew”: “My stepfather [Randy]…knew from very early on that my mother was Jewish. His rather conservative family didn’t, and they still don’t.”

This was, to the best of my knowledge, true at the time of my writing it. There is, in fact, a later, and longer, passage in the book devoted to this very subject: namely, that my mother was so proud about my success as a writer that she couldn’t help telling her family and friends in Mississippi about it—but she was so committed to keeping her Judaism a secret that she never told them what the book was about. (I’ve written about this online in some detail. Please read here to see what I’m talking about.)

Anyway, I recently returned from a family trip to Mississippi, where the discussion of the book was very much a dinner table topic. My step-grandmother, Anne, a wonderful woman with whom I’ve always had a great, if-not-entirely-frank, relationship, chimed in with this over our red beans and rice:

“I suppose it’s time to let the cat out of the bag,” she said, hushing everyone. “Right after your mother and Randy fell in love”—when I was about 12 or 13, or around 1986—“he said, 'Now, Mom, she doesn’t want anyone to know she’s Jewish. So don’t say anything.'”

There were a couple of implications here. First, our circumspection, or downright lying, through the years had been for nothing—they had known we were Jewish. What’s more—and no one said this, but it was implied—they had known without our saying a thing, assuming it somehow from our manner, appearance, and attitudes. Which is a little discomfiting, but still amusing from where I sit. As I have always said to my mother whenever she tries on a bit of a southern accent: “Ma, you can take the girl outta Queens. But you can’t take the Queens outta the girl.”

Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes Lapsed Jews, and One Man's Search for Himself. His writing has appeared in the pages (print and electronic) of the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, the AtlanticTablet, Saveur, Tin House, and a variety of other journals and newspapers. He is also the articles editor of Men’s Journal magazine.

Looking Up in New York

Monday, September 24, 2012 | Permalink
Theodore Ross is the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes Lapsed Jews, and One Man's Search for Himself. His writing has appeared in the pages (print and electronic) of the New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic, Tablet, Saveur, Tin House, and a variety of other journals and newspapers. He is also the articles editor of Men’s Journal magazine. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

As this is my first post, please allow me to introduce myself: I am the author of Am I a Jew?: Lost Tribes, Lapsed Jews, and One Man’s Search for Himself, which tells the story of a secular Jewish kid (me) who moves from New York to Mississippi, where he is forced by his mother to pretend he is a Christian. As an adult, I determine to understand what place, if any, there is in the religion of my birth for a kid who sang lead in an Episcopal school choir, studied the Bible, and took Communion. There’s more to it—everything from Jewish Catholic priests in New Mexico to my ten-minute bar mitzvah as a 38-year-old—but that’s a fair start to understanding where I’m coming from.

I sometimes struggle to explain what renewed my interested in Judaism. As I write in the book: "I visited a Holocaust Memorial site on vacation in the Czech Republic (it moved me to be sure, but not in this direction); I had children (I love them but that didn’t do it either); I lost members of my family (I miss my grandparents but I’m not [doing this] for them). The truth, banal as it might sound, is that I simply wanted to know. Or, more precisely, I needed to. Like my mother, I had my own myth to make real. Only mine, instead of entailing the abandonment of a specific and defined heritage, would require its embrace."

So I lack a simple answer for what motivated the project and process of answering my question. I do, however, remember the specific thing that convinced me to re-enter the world of Judaism, in my own way: the Manhattan eruv. Most readers of this blog, I assume, are familiar both with the concept of eruvin as well as the unique history of the one located in Manhattan (you may not, however, know, that a certain Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper West Side holds a—admittedly ceremonial—99-year lease on the entire island, at the bargain price of just one dollar), but I didn’t, and when I happened one day some years ago to notice the wires of the Manhattan crisscrossing the avenue outside of my office, I was inspired enough to learn.

The presence of this massive, symbolic Jewish household suggested a few, very important things to me: first, I was in a Jewish world already and I didn’t know it; second, that world was complex and meaningful, even if I couldn’t really accept its spiritual underpinnings; and last, and most important, if I didn’t make the effort to see that house—that world—it would, for all practical purposes, not exist. Now, I wander the city doing something very un-New York: looking up, scanning the streetlights for evidence of eruvin.

Read more about Theodore Ross here.

New Reading Lists

Friday, September 21, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

New Reviews

Friday, September 21, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


 

Wandering Mother, Wondering Daughter: Part 3

Friday, September 21, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Anne Cherian wrote about visiting the synagogue of the Cochin Jews in India and about her own experiences with Judaism. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The first title of a book that I remember with clarity is QB VII. It seemed so odd, with letters instead of words. My mother is an avid reader, and because there were no public libraries in our town, she saved every book. I grew up with bookcases lining the hallways, the shelves weighted down with novels. From the time I was very young, Mom would, on occasion, give me books she thought I needed to read. I was about 12 when she handed me QB VII, and then all the other novels by Leon Uris. Mom said that family members she had never met in Germany had died during the Holocaust, and because I did not know their names, every victim I read about in the novels became my family.

I never imagined, when I was reading Uris, that one day I would actually write – and publish  novels. 

I like to joke that my first novel, A Good Indian Wife, is pure fiction…it is also purely Indian. The second novel, The Invitation, is more personal because my character Jonathan is Jewish, like my mother; is a doctor like my grandfather; and lives in Marin, which is across the bay from Berkeley, where my mother grew up. Jonathan also gave me an entrée into the Jewish Book Council. I almost did not send in my application for the JBC Network, because I feared that though I am Jewish, I had not been brought up celebrating Jewish holidays, which mirrors Jonathan’s experience, but left me feeling I wasn’t Jewish enough. I calmed down when I realized that many of my friends in the US had been raised the same way. They, too, had not been to a synagogue until their twenties.

Mom was very excited when I told her I was going to New York to make a 2 minute presentation. She didn’t ask me what I was going to say. She only said: “Be proud. I want you to stand there and be proud.”

Anne Cherian was born and raised in Jamshedpur, India. She lives in Los Angeles, California, and visits India regularly. Her second book, The Invitation, is now available.

JBC Bookshelf: Fall Reads - Nonfiction

Thursday, September 20, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I think this might be a record: two JBC Bookshelf posts within two weeks. Not all of these books will be published in the fall (it's ok August, we're letting you slip in), but they're all worth checking out over the next several months. The titles below reflect on various topics across Jewish life, culture, and history and celebrate Judaism in America, past, present, and what's to come...

Living Jewishly: A Snapshot of a Generation, Stefanie Pervos Bergman, ed. (August 2012, Academic Studies Press)
This anthology, published in partnership with Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, features a few past Visiting Scribes: Matthue Roth, Abby Sher, Stacey Ballis. These writers, plus many more thoughtful voices, engage in such questions as: "Are we moving beyond denominational borders?", "Does being a Jewish young professional today mean never measuring up?", "Live, love, learn...but in what order?"

In History's Grip: Philip Roth's Newark Trilogy, Michael Kimmage (August 2012, Stanford University Press)
In History's Grip concentrates on the literature of Philip Roth, and in particular on American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain. Read JBC reviews of Roth titles here.

Jews in America, Stephen D. Corrsin, Amanda Siegel, and Kenneth Benson (November 2012, D Giles Limited in associated with the New York Public Library)
This gorgeous new book is based on the extensive collection of the NYPL and features an introduction from Jonathan D. Sarna, as well as 110 color and 10 b&w images of rare books, pamphlets, manuscripts, maps, and more. 

Singer's Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture, Ilan Stavans (November 2012, University of Nebraska Press)
What's not to love about this one? Stavans interweaves his own experience with other Jewish writers and thinkers, with specific essays focusing on: Isaac Bashevis Singer, translation and God's language, storytelling as midrash, Yiddish and Sepharidc literatures, the connection between humor and terror, the creators of the King James Bible, plus more.