The ProsenPeople

Silence, Blessed Silence

Friday, November 04, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gloria Spielman wrote about finding fellow writers on the Internet and the University of the Ghetto. Her most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

One of the upshots of all the reading and thinking I did for Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, was that I ended up doing a lot of thinking about something I’d never thought that much about before – silence and its power.

It never used to be like this. I wasn’t always on a quest for quiet. An only child, I yearned for noise, for hustle and bustle, a busy house with lots of people and their comings and goings. Who the hell needed quiet? Quiet was boring, unnerving, depressing, threatening even. A void to be filled. So, on went the TV the second I came home, the radio in the kitchen, a favourite tape, anything, as long as there was noise. Anyway, how could you do homework with no music? I had a friend at elementary school, who came from an odd family. They were odd as they had no TV. I remember thinking. What do they do for noise? It must be terrible, all that quiet. (Ironically, we are bringing up five children without a TV, but that’s a tale for another day.)

It seems I wasn’t alone. The world is full of intentional background noise: TVs no one is really watching, radios no one is really listening to and why? Just to break the silence, that’s why. Silence can be scary, sometimes lonely and it forces us to turn inward and gives us space to think. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes not.

I’m not sure when exactly this craving for noise became a craving for silence but one day there it was. At some point I realized I could no longer remember the last time I’d turned the radio on at home, or while driving. Silence no longer bothered, noise did. With me, it was mainly a writer thing. ‘How do you expect me to listen to those voices in my head with all that racket?’ So, that’s what they mean by “I can’t hear myself think!” I started noticing how much more relaxed I was when things were quiet. I started noticing that quiet brought with it feelings of serenity, peace and relaxation.

All well and good, at home where you can turn the TV, radio or your iPod on or off as the fancy takes you but it’s another thing in the public sphere. No one thinks it unreasonable. We’ve recognized the right not to have cigarette smoke blown into our faces. There are laws against that, so why does the commercial world seem to think it has every right to indulge in acoustic abuse. They just don’t let up, do they? It’s that insidious worm – Muzak. It’s everywhere. Shops, the mall, pool changing rooms restaurants and cafes.

At first, I just suffered without a word. I didn’t like to ask. British reserve and embarrassment, I guess. I mean, isn’t it grumpy old crankies who don’t want the music on? Music is cool. Not so cool to want it off. There are times I’d like to do the writer with laptop in café thing but so far every local café has told me they’re not allowed to turn off the music, even if you’re the only customer. “Company Policy,” they tell me. “We can turn it down but we can’t turn it off. Sorry.”

One waitress confessed, “I’d love to turn it off but if management found out I’ll be in trouble.” The pool is the only Muzak free zone I can think of, but I’ll pass on taking my laptop for a swim. Perhaps, one day, I’ll start a campaign for freedom from forced music in public places but until then me and my laptop stay home.
As I finish writing this, it’s almost time to start my Shabbat cooking. I’ll be listening to Shabbat by The Family Wach while I chop, slice and stir. Here’s a taste.

Did I say I didn’t like music? Oh no. There’s a time for everything.

A Hanukkah Present Giveaway

Wednesday, November 02, 2011 | Permalink

Finally, a Hanukkah Present for all ages to go with your Kindle, Nook or iPad.

Mark Binder’s collection, A Hanukkah Present! was the 2007 finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for Family Literature, and a Winner of Storytelling World Storytelling Magazine Honor.

Now it’s available in an electronic edition at a $10 discount. Through December 1, ebook editions will cost only $4.99.

Read the story of “The Lethal Latkes” or “The Challah that Ate Chelm” or “How Joseph Won His Bride with the Spin of a Dreidel.”

“”Lethal Latkes,” by the way, is not a murder mystery. It concerns some awful-tasting latkes (potato pancakes) and what you might call another Hanukkah miracle: love.” -The New York Times

Great for young and old. Perfect for reading aloud (Binder is also a professional storyteller). And for that someone who just got an ipad or a Kindle, send them the ebook as a gift.

With eleven stories and a novella, you’ll be getting more than your five buck’s worth!

For a free chapter: http://lightpublications.com/offer/

My First Writing Group: The Internet

Wednesday, November 02, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Gloria Spielman wrote about the University of the Ghetto. Her most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

It all started back in March 1999. We’d just got our very first home internet connection and I was setting off to navigate cyberspace and figure out what exactly was out there in that World Wide Web thing that everyone was going on about. These were the days of the Netscape browser and dial-up internet, which hogged the phone line and meant that you could either surf or make a phone call but not at the same time. My husband had assured me that the internet would help my writing. I was about to discover he was right.

I’d been trying my hand at writing, but what to do with my efforts? Were they any good? How bad were they really? And how would I know? Perhaps I ought to take up flower arranging instead? I should probably have someone read my work, but who? I knew no other writers, neither pre- nor post-published. On the other hand, perhaps it was all for the best as who wants to be sitting face to face with a person as they tell you, as we say in cockney, that your work is, a load of codswallop. So, the path of least resistance looked very inviting and I tucked those manuscripts away in my filing cabinet and the dust began to settle.

But now there was this thing called the Internet. It seemed quite clear that Arthur Clarke had been right after all and advanced technology was most certainly indistinguishable from magic. A click of the mouse and everything I wanted to know was now at the tips of my fingers, email lists, writer’s boards and forums, ask any question and it shall be answered instantly. Magic, definitely.

One day I saw an email on a writers list that a new critique group was starting up and open to new members. Time to fish out those old manuscripts. I sent off an email saying I would like to join. I was accepted. It was December 1999. One of our members was a published writer, there to point us in the right direction and the rest of us were just beginning to feel our way in the world of books and writing.

We introduced ourselves and began to share our writings. The last person who’d looked at my creative writing had been my high school English teacher. And I’d never ever given anyone writing advice. I learned on the job. Gently we encouraged each other to kill our darlings, cut the verbiage, rethink the story arc. And thankfully no mention of cobblers. Most importantly we encouraged each other to never ever to give up. Soon we were sharing much more than writing. Grumbles and gripes, joys and giggles. Some weeks none of us submitted a thing but still we talked and laughed. Babies were born, marriages celebrated, jobs lost and gained, the grumbles and gripes shared many words written and lots of laughs. We had no rules, none whatsoever. Anyone could submit anything at any time. When one of us was on a roll we all helped. Whatever was needed. As Verlie says, “I always love those on a roll times when the whole group lights up to celebrate one writing obsessed mind on fire.”

My friends helped me in other ways. These days I have a Kindle and so many books can be accessed on the internet. But in those earlier days, living in Israel, an English reading addict and writer could have gone nuts with trying to get their book fix. I did. My friends knew this and came to my rescue. I never asked, but, it happened that I would come home to an email, saying, ‘We had a bit of a clear-out, went to a garage sale. Just got back from the post office. There’s a box of books on their way to you.” Or, “just got this year’s Writers Market. I’m putting last year’s in the mail.”

I had joked that one day we would have our very own bookshelf. It was just a joke. But then our first member had her book published, then another and another. Today we have over two dozen books to our name. That shelf is starting to fill up. I even dedicated my first book to the group, along with my mother and my husband. Twelve years later and it’s a very different writing life.

Oh, and just one thing. Did I mention I’ve never actually met any of my friends face to face? Or even spoken on the phone: A pretty old-fashioned way of communicating when you think of it. Sometimes I think we’re not unlike Helene Hanff, Frank Doel and the staff of, 84 Charing Cross Road. Thomas Lask, writing in The New York Times about Hanff’s book, said, “Here is a charmer: a 19th-century book in a 20th century world.” Perhaps one day, we’ll be a 20th century book in a 21st century world. It is all down to the written word and that internet thing.

Gloria Spielman is the author of Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime

The University of the Ghetto

Monday, October 31, 2011 | Permalink

Gloria Spielman‘s most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime won a silver medal in the 2011 Moonbeam Children’s Book AwardsGloria will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

When I’m back in London there’s a building I like to visit.  If you’re an art lover and you’ve been to London you may know the place.  It’s the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End.  But it’s not the art that I go for, it’s the building itself or rather its new-old addition – the former Whitechapel Library.

The original gallery building opened in in London’s East End in 1901. It seemed like an odd location. The neighbourhood was dodgy.  Outsiders were scared to set foot in the area. In his book People of the Abyss, the writer Jack London tells of the horrified reactions of people when, in 1902, he told them he was planning on living there for a while. “You don’t want to live down there!” they said alarmed.” London fared no better with the good folks at Thomas Cook and Son, an English travel company that sent intrepid travelers all over the world and refused to take him a stone’s throw away to the East End. You can’t do it you know,” they told him “It is so – ahem –  unusual. Consult the police.”

Fortunately this was also the age of philanthropists with the winning combination of a zeal for social reform and deep pockets. Samuel Augustus Barnett, a social reformer and clergyman who’d moved to the East End, believed that the poor folks, native born and immigrants, in the crowded Whitechapel tenements deserved a library no less than Londoners in wealthier areas. He persuaded John Passmore Edwards, another social reformer, to dig into his wallet and fund a library for the residents of Whitechapel. The library opened in 1892. And what a library it was.

They called it The University of the Ghetto and it acquired legendary status. The area was home to vast numbers of poor Jewish immigrants with a thirst for knowledge. Because of Jewish borrowers the library built up the largest collection of Jewish and Yiddish literature in any British library.  It was a refuge and meeting place for all-sorts: radical thinkers, school children, dockers, office workers and down and outs.  They browsed the shelves and sat at the wooden tables in the reading room. And the list of writers and artists who got their start at number 77 Whitechapel High Street was long.

But times change. When it came time for me to join the library it was the late 1960s and the writing was already on the wall for the Jewish East End. The Jews had started moving on to pastures suburban. The generation of writers, artists, scholars, scientists, doctors and lawyers who’d got their start at the library had made their way in the world. At age five I knew nothing of the legions of readers that had gone before me. But the day I stepped over the threshold of number 77 Whitechapel High St and walked past the glazed tile picture of the old Whitechapel Haymarket, the library worked its magic. Number 77 became my second home. I asked to be taken to the library at every opportunity. When I was old enough I disappeared there for hours. You name it, I’ve read it. My favourite was Jewish literature. Like thousands before me, I sat at the wooden tables alongside all sorts.

Back home one university vacation, I returned to the library only to discover that Jewish literature had disappeared.  The dwindling Jewish community had taken its toll and the books had been moved to the basement. “Not much call for them anymore I’m afraid,” the librarian told me. “Would you like to see them?”  she asked. Of course I did. The caretaker opened a door and led me down dark stairs into the library basement. It was a Jewish bibliophile’s paradise. I wandered the shelves of books and yellowing old newspapers in Yiddish and English.  Many I’d read, some I’d been meaning to read, some held no real interest and others were in Yiddish which I barely read, but still each book was somebody’s world. How many worlds were dumped here underneath the feet of the pedestrians of Whitechapel High St?

From time to time I would visit my books. It was wonderful down there in the basement. Just me and my books. Occasionally a member of the library staff would pop their heads in to check on me.  In time, the library sold off the books to university libraries. I bought some. Today they sit on my shelves. Occasionally, when I have writers’ block I’ll open one, just the smell of the old paper with its patina of thumbprints of generations of Jewish immigrants is enough to ignite the imagination again.

In August 2005, Whitechapel Library closed its doors after 113 years. It reopened a tube station away as the Idea Store, a fabulous 4 storey building  with thousands more books, a café, free internet,  a crèche and even a dance studio.  I do believe Passmore Edwards would have approved.

The old building was bought by the Whitechapel Gallery next door. In 2009 it reopened as part of the Gallery after a massive renovation. Not long after, I went to check on the old girl. The Haymarket was gone. The original stair case and balustrade up to the reading room remained. There was not a trace of the old dark basement. Instead of books, you’ll find brightly lit toilets and a baby changing room. Up the in old reading room, the doors and windows looked just the same.  And those old wooden tables were just as I remembered. I got chatting to the young woman at the front desk. I mentioned I’d come to see the old library. “Funny, we’ve had a few people like you wanting to see the old library. Must have been a special place.”

I popped in again last month. Up in the old reading room on the first floor I shared my memories with the Gallery archivist. He told me: “Some people come here and say they just want to stroke the tables.” Makes sense to me.

Check back all week for more posts from Gloria Spielman.

Their (Our) Time Has Come

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Trina Robbins wrote about a Jewish woman who drew comics. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

Last month I flew to Seattle to attend the first GeekGirlCon (but not the last!).  GeekGirlCon is for the Rest of Us; maybe not 99%, but definitely 52%, the women who have for so long been shut out of a male-dominated comics industry, and all the related male-dominated industries, like computers and gaming.  It’s for us geeky girls who spent our high school years as outsiders, never cheerleaders, never dating the football team (often never dating at all!), but with our noses buried in science fiction or fantasy books or comics.  All those geeky girls have grown up into enthusiastic and talented young women  who are making great clothes and jewelry, creating wonderful new comics — and with not a superhero in the bunch. The energy level in the rooms was high and optimistic.

Instead of complaining about the insultingly gigantic-breasted women in the mainstream, male-oriented comics, the GeekGirls are drawing comics for themselves, which means for us.  They’re telling stories that we GeekGirls (and as the oldest person at that convention, I’m still a GeekGirl) can read and identify with, and drawing them beautifully.  I was on a panel devoted to Womanthology, a new women’s anthology project that raised their goal of $25,000 in production funds via  Kickstarter in under 20 hours. By the end of the fundraising period a month later, they had raised $109,301, making Womanthology the most-funded comics project to date. I’m honored to be one of the contributors. I told the audience about my Lily Renee graphic novel, and one woman said to me after the panel that she was moved to tears just learning about Lily’s story.

The week before I left for Seattle, the Occupy Wall Street movement had already spread to other cities: Portland,Seattle, Los Angeles, and my city, San Francisco.  But I’d been too busy meeting my deadlines to visit to their encampment.  Finally this past weekend, I found the time.  I brought with me a bag filled with the stuff hotels give you: shampoos, lotions, toothbrushes, hairbrushes, mending kits, little bottles and packages I always tossed into a drawer upon returning home from my travels, figuring I’d have a use for them one day.  So I finally had a use for them; I donated them to the red cross tent.  Then my partner and I toured the encampment.  It was neat and clean — as neat as a tent city could be — and they had even put up a library tent.  So the next day, my partner and I returned, this time with a carton of comics for the library tent.  Our visit this time coincided with a march to the Occupy encampment from the people of Glide Memorial Church, one of the most prominently liberal churches inAmerica, led by the Reverend Cecil Williams.  They had come to offer solidarity to the people of the Occupy movement.

With the exception of a few seriously decrepit old hippies (for a change I was NOT the oldest person!), the people of the Occupy encampment were, like the women at GeekGirlCon, young and enthusiastic, and like GeekGirlCon, the energy level was high and optimistic.  Somehow active, caring, optimistic young people skipped a generation, if not several.  There was very little in the way of real political activity in the 90s, and less in the first decade of the 21st Century. America seemed listless and depressed.  But now young people are back in action, and I can see them making changes. I marched my last march in the early 90s, for abortion rights.  I’m too old to camp out on concrete.  But I can do what I can to help and cheer on the young change-makers.  This world is yours!

Trina Robbins is the author of the just-released Lily Renee: Escape Artist.

NYC Event: Erika Dreifus (author of The Quiet Americans)

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter


The Jewish Historical Society of New York will present “Looking Backward: History, the Holocaust, and Literary Writing in the Third Generation” on Sunday, November 13, 2011.

NETWORK author  Erika Dreifus will be the guest speaker.

The program will be held at Park East Synagogue / Minskoff Cultural Center, 164 East 68th Street, Manhattan (between Third and Lexington Avenues) at 2:00PM on November 13th. There is a $5 admission charge. Subway: 6 to 68th Street.

Read Erika’s posts for the JBC/MJL Author Blog here and read more about the November 13th event here.

Great Women, Cut Short

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 | Permalink

Trina Robbins is the author of the just-released Lily Renee: Escape Artist, the Jewish superhero comic book GoGirl, and tons of other books.

Today I’m recovering from my annual Worst Cold Ever, trying to take it easy with a book and hot chai — and I’m angry. The book I’m reading is Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, written in pencil in tiny cramped handwriting on the pages of a worn notebook while she was hiding from the Nazis in 1942. Nemirovsky was already a famous and successful author, but that didn’t matter to the Nazis, who eventually found her, arrested her, and murdered her in Auschwitz. Her two young daughters spent the war years in hiding, first in a convent, then moving from house to house. When they fled from the Vichy gendarmes Denise, the older daughter, took Nemirovsky’s notebook with her, not because she knew what was in it, but because it was something of her mother’s that she could keep. It was many years before the sisters could bring themselves to read the contents of the notebook, but when they did they realized that they had been carrying around their mother’s last novel, about Parisians fleeing the 1940 Nazi invasion.

“Suite Francaise” was finally published 64 years after her death.

Earlier this month I went to the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum to see a selection of Charlotte Salomon’s exquisite art from her opus, “Life? Or Theater?” (The entire work, at over one thousand pages, would have been impossible to exhibit.) There has recently been much talk about Jewish women artists drawing autobiographical comics (there has been a traveling exhibition on the subject) and, told sequentially. Although each picture is on a separate page rather than being contained within panel borders, “Life? Or Theater?” is clearly the first graphic novel autobiography by a Jewish woman artist.

Pregnant and 25 years old, Salomon and her husband were arrested by the Gestapo in 1943, and like Nemirovsky, taken to Auschwitz and there murdered. I’m beyond angry. Two young and vibrant, immensely talented beautiful women murdered by creatures that don’t even deserve to be called human. How many others were there, who never got to write their novels, draw their stories?

Which brings us to Lily Renee and my graphic novel, Lily Renee: Escape Artist. If Lily’s story had not had a happy ending, I would not have been able to bring myself to tell it. If the Jewish teenager, Lily Renee Wilheim, had not been able to escape Nazi-occupied Vienna on one of the last Kindertransport trains to England, but instead had become one of the 1.5 million children murdered by the Nazis, there would have been no Lily to grow up and draw comics in America, to become one of the best and most famous women comics artists of the 1940s. How many others were there?

In the histories I’ve written about early 20th century women cartoonists, I’ve always devoted as much space as possible to the artist who drew Nazi-fighting women like aviatrix Jane Martin and glamorous counterspy Senorita Rio, and signed her comics with the sexually ambiguous name “L. Renee.” But that wasn’t much space because I didn’t know anything about Lily, until one day I received an email that began, “I am Lily Renee’s daughter…” I found out that Lily Renee Wilheim Philips was alive and well and living in New York City, and when I met this elegant, cultured, and gracious lady and learned her harrowing story, I knew I had to tell it.

As I said, this story has a happy ending. When England went to war with Germany, Lily lost touch with the parents she’d had to leave behind in Vienna, and didn’t know that they had escaped to America. But they found her, and Lily sailed to America, where, after living the hand-to-mouth existence of poor refugees, Lily eventually found work drawing comics for the comic book publisher, Fiction House. At last, on paper, she was able to beat the Nazis!

So yeah, Lily Renee: Escape Artist is a comic by a Jewish woman about a Jewish woman who drew comics. And it’s for Charlotte Salomon and Irene Nemirovsky, and the 1.5 million kids who never had the chance to grow up and produce comics or novels or graphic novels.

Lily Renee: Escape Artist is a graphic novel for younger readers, but that only means that there’s no cursing and no sex in the book. I write my graphic novels for young readers exactly as I would wish to read them; I never write down. For interested New Yorkers, Lily and I will be talking about and signing the graphic novel at the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) on November 3, from 7-9 P.M. and on November 6, at Books of Wonder, 18 West 18th Street, from 3-5 P.M. If you live in San Francisco like me, I’ll be presenting a talk and PowerPoint slide show at the main branch of the San Francisco public library (alas, without Lily) on November 29.

Check back for more posts from Trina Robbins later this week.

A Sukkah Occupies Wall Street

Tuesday, October 18, 2011 | Permalink

Last week, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice and asked discussed the importance of place. Her most recent bookWhere Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights), is now available.

As I write this blog post, I am preparing to teach at Occupy Wall Street on Monday. Following a successful Kol Nidrei service, a Jewish contingent there has constructed a sukkah — the temporary hut in which Jews traditionally eat — and even sleep — during Sukkot.

Since I don’t use the subway during the holidays or Shabbat, I won’t get to see the sukkah in person until tomorrow. But sitting in my own sukkah these past few days, I have been thinking a lot about the paradox of protection and vulnerability that characterizes Sukkot.The sukkah represents both of these poles—on the one hand, the fragile skhakh (covering of leaves, branches, and other natural materials) that constitutes the roof of the sukkah leaves us almost entirely exposed to the elements. Over the past few days, we’ve endured quite a few drizzles and gusts of wind, as well as bugs and the general banging and clanging of the Manhattan streets. (When the rain gets serious, though, there’s no obligation to remain in the sukkah—the holiday is supposed to be enjoyable.) On the other hand, the skhakh also reminds us of the anenei hakavod (clouds of glory)—the Divine Presence said to have accompanied the ancient Israelites during their trek to freedom. Sukkot doesn’t try to resolve this paradox—rather, the sukkah forces us simultaneously to experience both fragility and divine protection. Through this experience, we learn that the seemingly-strongest structures can sometimes fail to protect us, while the most fragile structures can help us feel protected.

The movement to Occupy Wall Street (and many other places around the world) has also played with these two axes of fragility and strength. In placing themselves physically in the centers of financial power, these protests force us to question our assumptions about what is strong and what is weak. We often assume that those with wealth and power will always have wealth and power, that corporations will always be able to call the shots, and that those with less access to wealth will never have power.

But the occupiers, who make themselves vulnerable by camping outside and by exposing themselves to arrest, have developed more strength than many of us might have expected.

I will teach tomorrow from a tiny, fragile sukkah. It will be cool and windy. It may rain. And yet, even within this vulnerability, I will feel myself protected by the strength all around me.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all through Sukkot.

October Jewish Book Carnival

Monday, October 17, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter 



The October Jewish Book Carnival is here! The month’s carnival is being hosted by Homeshuling. 

Check it out for a review of The Last Brother, Sadie’s Sukkah Breakfast, The North of God, and more.

Does Place Matter?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Rabbi Jill Jacobs wrote about Sukkot and social justice. Her most recent book, Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights), is now available.

I started Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community with a question: Does place matter?

In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to say that place doesn’t matter at all. With a few clicks of a mouse, I can skype with friends and relatives all over the world. If I choose tomorrow to move to Fiji, I can do so. If I wanted, I could hire a secretary in India, outsource data entry to Cambodia, and telecommute from a cruise ship on the Atlantic. We no longer live in a world in which we grow up, go to school, work, and die in the same city or even often the same country.

And yet, I had a deep conviction that place does matter. Personally, I have prioritized doing justice work in the place where I live (New York City/the United States) and in Israel, where I have deep roots and much experience. At the same time, I cannot ignore the dire poverty in parts of the world far from where I live, and where I may never visit.

Place plays a fundamental role in Jewish tradition. We tell our people’s story in geographic terms—Abraham left the land of his ancestors and settled in Canaan; Joseph and his brothers went down to Egypt; the Israelite people came out of Egypt, journey through the wilderness, and found their place in the land of Israel. Our history includes sojourns in Europe, North Africa, Asia, and the Arab World. We continue to mourn the destruction of the Temple—once our central place—and the subsequent expulsions from many of the places we have lived. There is even a divine aspect to place—the rabbis call God “HaMakom”—“The Place.”

At the same time, we are a people whose history transcends place. We maintain our traditions even as we move around the world (though these traditions have shifted according to the places where we live). We speak of Am Yisrael—the people of Israel—as a unit not bounded by geography.

So does place matter or not?

I ended up devoting much of the second chapter of the book to a particularly intriguing text that considers how to prioritize our own needs with those of the people of another place. In this text, the people of one town have a well from which they take water to drink, to feed their animals, and to do laundry. People of another town, in which there is no well, stop by to ask for water. The ensuing several centuries of discussion considers which of our own needs take priority, when to share the water, and what responsibility to place on the residents of any individual place to care for their own needs.

The conclusion: Place isn’t everything, but it still matters.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America and the author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On-Guide for Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights) and There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition