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JBC: A New Home for Your Book Club

Wednesday, May 01, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

You already know that JBC's website is a great place to find book reviews, blog posts from authors, reading lists, and news from around the Jewish book world, but did you know that JBC now has a dedicated section (and staff person!) to give book clubs that little bit extra? JBC's new book club section puts reviews, discussion questions and reading lists all in one place, offers weekly book picks chosen with book clubs in mind, and has introduced two new servicespersonalized book recommendations and the chance for book clubs to video chat with authors!

Want to have the author at your next book club meeting and find out just what they meant with that ending? Register for JBC Live Chat! Do you dread coming up with suggestions for your next book? JBC will do it for you!

This is just the beginning...still to come: more readers' guides, sample reading lists, special features from the authorsnew discussion questions, character maps, background info, reviews from other book clubs. 

Check back frequently; the pageswhich will be changing and growing every week to feature new books, new ideas, and new programsgive book clubs a one-stop-shop for selecting a book and starting a conversation.  

Is there something that would really help your book club? Let us know, we'll see if we can add it. Questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to talk book clubs? Email Miri Pomerantz Dauber at

Interview: Helene Wecker

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 | Permalink
by Dani Crickman

Helene Wecker is the author of the The Golem and the Jinni. The debut novel follows the converging stories of two mythical creatures who must find their place within turn-of-the-century immigrant New York.

Dani Crickman: I love the simplicity of the title The Golem and the Jinni and how well it encompasses the story. How did you come up with the title? Were there any others you considered?

Helene Wecker: The title never was anything other than that in my mind, from the first twelve pages that I wrote which was back when I was at Columbia and it was for a workshop. I thought it would be a children's book or a novella or something short, and it had that fairytale feel to it. It was meant to have a simple title, like those of the stories from The Thousand and One Nights.

When it started to become apparent that this was going to become a long, more adult book, and it was going to take me a while to write it, I had a number of people tell me, “You're going to have to change the title before it gets sold. No one knows what a golem is, not as many people know what a jinni is as you think.” There were a couple of times when I started to think of other titles, and I just couldn't come up with anything. Everything was too vague or metaphorical. Later on, my editor, my agent, and I were all working on titles, and we still couldn't come up with anything. For some reason, this book was just completely resistant to any other title. So that was what we ended up going with. It's a conundrum we resolved by not doing anything about it in the end.

DC: The golem and the jinni have believable personalities that are both admirable and flawed, as well as opposite yet compatible to each other's. Was it difficult to find characterizations for them that worked?

HW: Yes, it was. During the seven years it took me to write the book, it went through a number of iterations, and the characters themselves went through a number of iterations. Especially the golem. At first she was very much more like an automaton. She had her own free will, but she had much less insight into other people. Her ability to hear other people's desires and fears was added in three or four years after I start­ed writing the book, because it was clear that she did not have enough agency. She did not interact very well with other characters because she didn't understand them well enough, and because of that she wasn't as interesting a character herself. It was like watching a robot move around and have to learn about people, which could be an interesting story, but it wasn't enough. Not for this.

The jinni was also hard to pin down because I wanted him to be ar­rogant and mercurial without being a total jerk. I wanted him to still be someone a reader could relate to or be interested in. With him, it was finding that balancing point. He was fun to write, in that it's sometimes fun to write the bad boy, but I didn't want to go to nuts with that.

They both took some fine-tuning, and it helped to think of them in relation to each other. They weren't created in a vacuum. I was thinking, How am I going to get them to spark off each other? What about the one is really going to piss off the other?

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Dr. Ron Wolfson on the Future of Jewish Institutions

Tuesday, April 30, 2013 | Permalink
Dr. Ron Wolfson, visionary educator and inspirational speaker, is Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles and a cofounder of Synagogue 3000. His most recent book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community (Jewish Lights Publishing), is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

As I travel around the country visiting Jewish institutions of all kinds, my "worry" quotient is growing daily. Nearly everywhere I go, I hear stories of declining membership, difficulties in attracting the next generation, peaking enrollments and flat fundraising campaigns. This is unusual for me; I have been an optimistic cheerleader for the Jewish community during my career. Bottom line: I am not worried about the future of the Jewish people; I am very worried about the future of Jewish institutions.

What's happening? In Relational Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing), I outline the many challenges facing any Jewish organization seeking to engage people. A "biggy" is the Internet. Once upon a time, rabbis and Jewish educators held exclusive access to the wealth of Jewish practice and tradition. Not today. In the zeitgeist of DIY - "Do It Yourself," the Internet offers enormous resources for just about anything someone wants to learn or do. Another challenge: why should I pay thousands of dollars in membership fees if I can "rent-a-rabbi" to do a backyard Bar/Bat Mitzvah? In the larger Jewish population centers, there are plenty of rabbis who cannot find work in established congregations hanging a shingle and offering their services as independent contractors. Jewish Community Centers face increasing competition from well-equipped health clubs open 24/7. Day school tuition is so high it is pricing out a large segment of those who would like to send their kids.

All this begs the central question facing Jewish institutions: "What's the value-added of joining?" If the "offer" of affiliation is not truly attractive, I am afraid the membership base will continue to narrow as young people find alternative ways to "do Jewish" and aging baby boomer/empty nesters opt out.

For me, the value-added must be a face-to-face community of relationships that gives my life meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. "Meaning" is an understanding of the significance of life. "Purpose" is an imperative to do what you are put on earth to do during your life. "Belonging" is a community of people who will be there for you and with you. "Blessing" is a feeling of deep satisfaction and gratitude, a calendar and life cycle of opportunities to celebrate the gifts of life.

In my research for writing Relational Judaism, I searched for organizations and individuals who "get" this, who understand that building relationships, not simply offering a calendar of programs, is the task of the moment. The book presents six case studies: Chabad, Hillel, congregation-based community organizing, next generation initiatives, social media and fundraisers. In my next posting, I will share some lessons learned from their pioneering work, work that I believe is the forward edge of creating a Relational Judaism for the twenty-first century.

Find additional JBC-reviewed titles by Dr. Ron Wolfson here.

Interview: Jessica Soffer

Monday, April 29, 2013 | Permalink

by Penny Metsch

Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, was published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2013.

Penny Metsch: Every aspect of your story is so timely, yet so enduring. Issues of immigration, parenting, teenage angst, and food, wonderful, beautifully prepared food, are with us every day. Yet, you have given us a fresh view of it all. The characters are each compelling in his or her own right, but also inter-woven like a precious rug. How did it all come together?

Jessica Soffer: That’s a really generous way of describing the book. Thank you so much. I didn’t think too terribly much about those con­cepts while writing. For the most part, I am inspired by characters and by images. The story was born from Lorca (a teenage pain addict, whom I’d written a story about while I was in graduate school) and an image that suddenly came to me and persisted: two people—an old woman and a young girl—cooking together in a kitchen. What grew out of that, around that, was a way of situating those elements.

PGM: Victoria and Joseph are Iraqi Jews. Their immigration journey has a very personal connection to your family’s history. Would you elaborate?

JS: My father was an Iraqi Jew who came to the United States at roughly the same time that Victoria and Joseph (two characters in Apricots) did. At one time, and for a very long time, the Jews in Baghdad flourished. They were the sophisticates, the intellectuals, a huge and important part of the political and cultural landscape. But after the Brits left Iraq in 1942, there was turmoil and instability—and the Nazis took advan­tage of that. Everything changed. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, 120,000 out of 135,000 Jews fled. First, before 1947, legally and safely. After, they were given the option to leave everything—their passports, belongings, everything—and be airlifted to Israel. Most did. My father didn’t. He went through Iran, into hiding, and eventually was given false papers, which enabled him to travel to Ellis Island.

PGM: I think I will remember Lorca for as long as I read. Her yearning for love and her self-mutilating response at rejection is heart wrench­ing. Did you ever know anyone like her?

JS: What a lovely thing to say. Thank you again. I knew some cutters growing up, but no one intimately. I was never present when they cut, nor was I ever in a position to intervene, which I am grateful for. But self-harm is an epidemic and one that has always interested me. In a lot of ways it’s the opposite of escapism. It’s an attempt to feel, to inhabit one’s body, the world, more. And feeling more is at the heart of what good writing should do, force us to inhabit another person’s life, another world.

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Digging Deep into the Soul in the Heart of Iowa

Monday, April 29, 2013 | Permalink

We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the next several weeks, we'll share their responses. Today, Stuart Nadler discusses how he came to write his short story collection The Book of Life.

I wrote all but one of the stories in The Book of Life while I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I hadn’t gone to Iowa thinking I would leave with a collection. In truth, I hadn’t even realized I was working on a collection until most of these stories were finished, and I recognized, looking over everything, that there was so much common ground in the work, places where the stories touched and diverged, characters who shared the same anxieties and concerns. As a reader, what I love most about short story collections is that, invariably, they represent in some way an author’s preoccupations and obsessions. And this, surely, was true about me and the stories in this book.

A good deal of The Book of Life is about family—fathers and sons, brothers, husbands and wives—and about the sins people commit against the people they love most. Invariably, I’ve come into the lives of these characters at their very worst mo­ments. In one story, a father reacts poorly to his son’s sudden interest in Judaism, while trying to exist in an open marriage. In another, a father takes his son to meet his own estranged father, a man he’s pretended has been dead for decades. I was on a treadmill at the gym when the idea for this story came to me. It’s the only time this has ever happened: the whole story, in its entirety. In "Catherine and Henry" a woman, unsure of her boyfriend’s faithfulness, tests him with a prostitute. This was the story I was working on when I came to the Workshop. I’d end up rewriting it for six years before it was published.

I was already fixated on the central ideas in this book by the time I arrived in Iowa: sin and redemption and the way these transgres­sions intersect with religion, or a lack of religion. I have never been particularly observant, but that first autumn, when the High Holidays arrived, I found myself taking bread down to the Iowa River to celebrate tashlich. In Hebrew, tashlich means “casting off.” It’s a simple exercise, in which you take pieces of bread and throw them into a river, an act that is supposed to symbolize casting off a year’s sins. The idea comes from the prophet Micah, who says that God “will cast all our sins/Into the depths of the sea.” I had never done this before, or even heard of the practice before I did it, and, to be entirely truthful, I haven’t done it since. The title of my book comes from the part of the High Holiday liturgy that has always been my favorite: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The idea of a book of life has always fascinated me, as has the generous notion that its pages are opened fresh every year, and that one’s private sins can be forgiven communally.

This—On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed—was the initial title for the first story in my book. In it, a man has an affair with his best friend's grown daughter. I wrote the first draft of this story over the course of a frigid week in February. In many ways, the story was a breakthrough. Here was what I had been looking for. How people react when they’re tempted. How people suffer at their missed opportunities at love. How they seek out their faith, even if, as it is true for almost all of my characters, they don’t know or remember how to connect with that faith. The rest of the stories came quickly after that, and when I left Iowa that spring I had a bigger, baggier version of what this book would become. In the end, putting the book together was a process of assembly, and what remained after all the cutting and discarding and revision was the core of that initial preoc­cupation of mine—these characters who are cheaters and adulterers and liars and bad parents, bad brothers, bad friends, all of them trying to negotiate theirs sins and their guilt.

Stuart Nadler is a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, he was also the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Wise Men, and the story collection The Book of Life.

Statues and Golems

Saturday, April 27, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Helene Wecker shared a golem-centric reading list and wrote about writing a novel in two cultures and Dorkdom. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was 28 before I first saw the Statue of Liberty in person. I'd been accepted to grad school in New York City, and my husband (then fiancé) and I flew out together to see the school—and, in my case, to see the city for the first time. It was a hasty trip, with a red-eye flight and a hodgepodge itinerary. We had friends of friends in Chelsea, and they graciously allowed us to crash at their place. It turned out they lived on one of the busiest corners in the city, and the incessant cab-honking kept us awake most of the night. It was a very New York welcome.

That first afternoon, still fuzzy with jet lag, we took a walk out to the Hudson Park greenway. At Chelsea Piers we stopped to watch the trapeze students swinging through the air above us, looking nervous in their leotards and safety harnesses. We walked out to the end of one of the piers, and that's where I caught my first real-life glimpse of her.

Wow, I thought. Here I am. There she is.

At that distance she was just a slim gray silhouette, motionless on her pedestal. Tour boats churned at her feet; helicopters swooped past her like dragonflies. She seemed like the only still object in a moving world. Looking at her, I felt what I'd later come recognize as a particularly New York-style cognitive dissonance: the weird fact of this huge, iconic thing just sitting there, minding her own business, while the city went about its afternoon.

A few years after I stood on Chelsea Pier, I gave a character in The Golem and the Jinni the traditional immigrant arrival in America: a steamship cruising past the statue, the waving hands and the tears of joy. Except that my character is far from a traditional immigrant. She's a golem, newly created and alone. She has no knowledge or understanding of the statue; she doesn't even know what liberty is—though she's newly liberated herself, her master having just died. But she recognizes that the people around her love the statue, and she takes comfort in the fact that it is clearly a constructed woman, like herself.

If you think about it, the Statue of Liberty is an oddity among monuments. We Americans like our statues to be of real people, of presidents and heroes and civic leaders. But the Statue of Liberty is a personification, a portrait of an idea, and a female one to boot. (Name one other woman whose face is so closely associated with the idea of America.) She's become such an everyday image that it's hard to remember that The Statue of Liberty isn't just her name, but her function, the purpose for which she was built. A Statue, representing Liberty. And as it turns out, Bartholdi and his workers were merely her first set of creators. In the years that followed she was brought to life again and again, a multitude of animations, as each immigrant en route to Ellis Island filled her with a new set of hopes and fears, longings and disappointments. In that sense, she's the ultimate American golem.

Read more about Helene Wecker here.

Related: Emma Lazarus

New Reviews

Saturday, April 27, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:


Under the Influence of Golems

Friday, April 26, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Helene Wecker wrote about writing a novel in two cultures and Dorkdom. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Ales golem

Here's a confession: I haven't read that many golem stories. Or at least, as many as someone who's written a book called The Golem and the Jinni probably should've. I haven't read Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers, or Marge Piercy's He, She and It. I haven't cracked Thane Rosenbaum's The Golems of Gotham, or the more golem-centered volumes of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

When I started writing The Golem and the Jinni, I was really, really unsure of myself. I was embarking on what I knew was my first real book, and it was like all newborn things, delicate and easily disturbed. Something warned me that if I filled my head with the golem stories of other, far more talented writers, I would crowd my own barely-formed golem right out of my brain, or unintentionally mash it into a different image.

Over the years, that intimidation became an almost superstitious avoidance. Maybe now that the book is finished, I can finally crack The Puttermesser Papers without worrying that Ozick's golem will feel more real to me than my own. But in any case, here are a few golem stories that I do know, and that added their own particular flavors to my book, whether I meant them to or not.

1) The old, classic stories of Rabbi Loew and his golem. Honestly, I'm not sure when I first heard these stories. At Sunday school? That sort of Old World folk culture didn't fit with our modern Reform curriculum. My grandparents? My mom's parents were cosmopolitan German Jews; this wasn't really their thing. My dad's folks were the Yiddish speakers, but I don't remember them telling me folk tales. Usually they were too busy trying to get me to eat things. So where did I learn them? It feels like the stories were always there, floating through the ether: Rabbi Loew and his golem, the protector of Prague's medieval Jews during the pogroms. Years later, after I'd started writing The Golem and the Jinni, first my parents and then my in-laws visited Prague and brought me back little translated volumes of golem stories. A few were variations I hadn't read before, but mostly they were already familiar.

2) Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. If you haven't read this yet, seriously, treat yourself. The golem in Kavalier and Clay is the golem, Rabbi Loew's legendary creation. It's a real-world presence in the first part of the book—one of the characters attempts to smuggle it out of Pragu—and a recurring motif through the rest of the book, one of its many threads of longing and sadness. (Really, you've read this, right? Because I can lend you my copy if you haven't.)

3) James Sturm, The Golem's Mighty Swing. Sturm's graphic novel follows a 1920s all-Jewish baseball team facing anti-Semitism as they travel the Midwest. Going broke and looking for a gimmick to fill the seats, they dress the team's one African-American player as a golem, and advertise his prowess. Then, of course, things start to go awry. It's a sad but satisfying tale, and a good baseball yarn as well.

4) Naomi Kritzer, "The Golem." "The golem woke on December 1st, 1941, and saw the future before her like an unrolled scroll." With a first line like that, how can you not read more? This particular golem—the first female golem I ever encountered—is built by two women in Prague who hope to survive the unsurvivable. Kritzer (whom I've known since college) uses her prescient golem to examine ideas of free will, destiny, and choice. (You can find "The Golem" in 2001's Year's Best Fantasy, and in Kritzer's digital collection Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.)

5) The X-Files, "Kaddish." Maybe I'm cheating a little here, but shows like The X-Files have been as formative to my imagination as the books I’ve read. In this fourth-season episode, Mulder and Scully go to Brooklyn to investigate the strangulation of a neo-Nazi who murdered a Hasidic Jew. I remember feeling proud that the show was tackling a golem story, but also thinking that the supporting players suffered from the unfortunate exoticization that happened whenever The X-Files dealt with an ethnic beastie. That golem, though: pretty creepy.

Read more about Helene Wecker here.

Related: ProsenPeople Reading Lists

Lower East Side Reading List

Thursday, April 25, 2013 | Permalink

Book Cover of the Week: The New Persian Kitchen

Thursday, April 25, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBC Network author Louisa Shafia returns with her latest cookbook, The New Persian Kitchen (Ten Speed Press). If this one is anything like her last (she published the mouthwatering Lucid Food in 2009), you won't be disappointed. 

Tip: I was lucky enough to take a great cooking class with Louisa several years ago (and hoping for round two this year). If she's visiting a city near you, it's a must.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.