The ProsenPeople

Apatow and AJWS

Thursday, November 04, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Not exactly “books,” but an inspiring organization that you should all know about and support:

Jewish Lit Links

Thursday, November 04, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Crybabies in the Israeli Army

Wednesday, November 03, 2010 | Permalink

Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade) has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council on his Jewish Book NETWORK tour. Missed the first two? Check them out here and here.

I’ve done quite a few of these book events now – half a dozen through the Book Council, and another ten or so after my stand-up comedy shows – and sometimes it feels like they all blend together.

But then, every once in a while, I’ll have an event where something truly incredible happens, guaranteeing that I’ll never forget that particular night.

Last Thursday’s reading at the Posnack JCC in Davie, Florida was one of those unforgettable evenings.

It all started when a guy in the front row asked me about the title of my book. I explained that “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” was actually a nickname that my officer gave to our platoon during basic training. I told the crowd that in my unit we had a number of mama’s boys who faked injuries to get out of guard duty and literally broke down crying during hikes in hopes that they’d get a ride back to base in a jeep. “Having grown up on the myth of the invincible Israeli Army,” I explained, “I was quite shocked by the sheer wimpiness of some of my comrades.”

Right then and there, an old woman raised her hand and shouted, “Excuse me, you!”

I looked at her, startled. “Uh…yes?” I said.

The woman stood up. She was short, and thin, with dyed red hair that matched her polyester jumpsuit – a typical South Florida bubbie, and with the spunky energy of Dr. Ruth.

The bubbie shook her finger at me. “You are the crybaby!” she wailed.

I chuckled. Part of me wanted to dismiss her. But I was curious. And she was entertaining.

“And why am I the crybaby, Ma’am?” I asked.

The woman stepped forward. “There are no crybabies in the Israeli Army. Israeli soldiers are the bravest in the world. The only soldier who’s crying is you!”

Half of the crowd shouted at her to shut up. The other half – mostly the older folks – cheered her on.

“Whoa, whoa, wait a second,” I hushed the crowed. “Ma’am – with all due respect, I’m not saying that Israeli soldiers aren’t brave. I’m just saying that, in my platoon – my experience – there happened to be quite a few kids who, quite frankly, didn’t want to be in the army and tried every trick in the book to get out.”

The woman shook her head. “Not in the Israeli Army I know!” she bellowed. Her supporters cheered.

I was warned that, sooner or later, this kind of thing might happen on my book tour. Israel is an extremely emotional topic. I knew people would react to my book in ways I couldn’t necessarily predict.

Not that I ever had an agenda. In writing my book, I did not set out to praise Israel or to disparage Israel. Instead, my goal was simply to tell my story as honestly as I could. At times in my book, I express admiration for the IDF – for example, when our officer sits us down during basic training and leads us in a discussion of battlefield ethics.

Other times, like when I describe our lack of training before deploying to Lebanon, I’m critical. But I was always honest and, in my mind, fair.

The fact is, however, that there are many, many people out there – usually older ones, but some younger ones, too – who simply refuse to believe that the legendary Israeli Army is not perfect. This South Florida bubbie was one of them.

I explained to the woman that I was not the first author to write about Israel’s imperfections – in fact, in Self Portrait of a Hero, Yoni Netanyahu’s posthumous autobiography, Yoni himself describes the crybabies in his unit and how these guys hold back his platoon. Or, I suggested, the woman should check out the movies Waltz with Bashir and Beaufort – both of which are Israeli made, were nominated for Oscars, and present less-than-perfect images of the Israeli Army.

But the woman and her cohorts refused to back down. She simply couldn’t handle an Israel narrative that diverged from her own.

After the event was over, the red-headed bubbie approached me. I feared another shaking down. But instead she said, “Keep up the good work, young man.”

“Okay,” I said, surprised. “But what about–?”

“We need people like you,” she cut me off. “We need you and we need your books. Otherwise, we Jews will have nothing to argue about.”

Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade) has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council on his Jewish Book NETWORK tour. Be sure to check back for his next post for the JBC Blog.

Getting Close to Your Food is Harder When Meat is Involved

Wednesday, November 03, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Sue Fishkoff wrote about people who only keep kosher on holidays. She is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority.

The first time I had my hands inside a still-warm turkey, I wondered just how far I was willing to take this business of getting up close and personal with my food.

I was at an organic turkey farm an hour and a half north of San Francisco with two dozen other volunteers on a wet, cold winter morning in December 2008, preparing what would become the main entrée for the Hazon Food Conference’s Shabbat dinner later that week. We stomped around in the drizzle and fog, as organizer Roger Studley explained what we were about to do.

“We’re doing this old-school and hands-on,” he stated. “We’re doing it as a community, making meat for the conference we are about to attend. This is a project bringing us closer to the source of the food we are eating, making real the fact that we are taking the lives of animals in order to sustain ourselves.”

The annual Hazon conference is the preeminent national gathering of activists in the new Jewish food movement, a growing family of mainly younger Jews who want to make food choices that are in line with Jewish values as well as their moral and political beliefs concerning workers’ rights, good health, humane treatment of animals, environmental protection, and food access for the poor. This laundry list of concerns makes it difficult to feed a conference of 600 hungry people, something the organizers discovered earlier that summer when they debated whether to include meat at all for a gathering that typically includes so many hardcore vegetarians.

The choice was made — Shabbat isn’t Shabbat without the option of a roast bird — so there we were, watching shochet Andy Kastner grab the first turkey and slit its neck with a quick back-and-forth motion of his carefully sharpened knife.

Kastner was still in rabbinical school — he’s now the Hillel rabbi at Washington University in St. Louis. I’d met up with him a few months earlier at a kosher goat slaughter in a Connecticut field, and he’d shared his thoughts as he skinned and eviscerated his first mammal. It was, he admitted, not an easy experience.

By December he had more practice, and the turkey shechting went smoothly. The rest of the group split into two, with half of us assigned to hang up the just-slaughtered birds and pull out their feathers, while a smaller, braver group did the evisceration, pulling out the internal organs and plunging the turkeys into a plastic bin filled with water. To kasher and prepare the the birds, we had to soak them for half an hour, then cover them in salt for another hour, rinse them three times, and seal and pack them up for transport to the convention center.

The ground inside the storage shed where we worked quickly filled with flying feathers. As I concentrated on my task, I noticed that each bird I plucked felt farther removed from the living animal it had so recently been. Was that something my own consciousness was doing, to protect my emotions? Or was it the same phenomenon I observed when I worked on an assembly line in a kibbutz factory, where after a while automation leads to objectification?

I also thought about my grandmother, who bought her chickens from a kosher butcher in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, glad they were already plucked and gutted. How she would have shook her head and laughed at us, a bunch of city folk with romantic notions about the beauty of killing and cleaning our own meat. Who needs it, she would have chuckled.

But that Friday in the dining hall, when I looked at the roast turkey leg on my plate, I felt a giddy sense of pride. I found myself eating more slowly, savoring each bite as I remembered the hours of hard work involved in getting that bird to this table. I thought about the Jewish tradition of honoring the Shabbat by serving the best food one can afford, including meat, even if one avoids it the rest of the week. And I was struck once again by how Judaism takes note of the eternal cycle of life and death, commanding us to bless the food that sustains us before we put it into our mouths.

And it all made sense.

Sue Fishkoff’s new book, Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority, is now available. Come back all week to read his posts for the Jewish Book Council and My Jewish Learning‘s Author Blog series.

General Assembly + Lion of Judah Author Events

Monday, November 01, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The JBC team is off to New Orleans this weekend for the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly and the International Lions of Judah Conference. Every year, the JBC provides an amazing bookstore (if I do say say myself), as well as author events for the GA, and for this first time this year, the Lion of Judah conference.

If you’re lucky enough to be jetting to the warm New Orleans weather for these conferences, make sure you find time to come hear one (or all!) of the great authors who will be speaking on behalf of the Jewish Book Council. The full line-up is below:

The Allure of Kosher Food for the Jewish Holidays

Monday, November 01, 2010 | Permalink

Sue Fishkoff is the author of Kosher Nation: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s  Visiting Scribe.

When I’m invited to a Shabbat or holiday meal in a Jewish home, I always bring kosher wine. Not just that, I try to make it Israeli.

It’s not because I keep kosher. And it’s not because the people I’m visiting necessarily keep kosher either.

If wine by any other name smells as sweet, why bother?

I know I’m not alone—plenty of Jews who ordinarily ignore the laws of kashrut buy kosher wine for Shabbat, stock their pantries with kosher-for-Passover food every spring, and pay extra for kosher catering at their simchas.

Hypocritical? Yes, if you believe that procuring and ingesting kosher food has merit only within the context of a fully observant lifestyle. But that construct holds sway today mainly at the far ends of the observance spectrum, among the most hard-line haredim, for whom any deviation from the path plunges the offender into heresy, and the few remaining Classical Reform Jews who are hostile to Jewish rituals in general, including kashrut.

Increasing numbers of American Jews, however, do not consider the kosher diet a divine commandment but an expression of Jewish identity, a mark of membership in the tribe. As such, it is a moving target. Putting kosher food on the table does not signal one’s denominational affiliation or level of observance so much as the strength of one’s connection to Jewish history, Jewish community, and even the land of Israel.

It’s a different, very modern and specifically Western way of looking at Jewish dietary practice.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to the Mintel International Group, a market research firm that releases periodic reports on the kosher industry, more than 40 percent of the food sold in American supermarkets is kosher-certified. The group’s January 2009 report claimed that $195 billion of the previous year’s $400 billion in food sales came from kosher products, an astounding figure given that Jews make up less than three percent of the population—and most don’t even keep kosher.

Sure, most of that kosher-certified food represents mainstream products like Heinz ketchup and Tropicana orange juice that consumers buy without regard to its kosher status. More telling is the same report’s figure of $12.5 billion in sales within the dedicated kosher market, meaning products purchased because of the kosher label.

Who’s buying this food? Many are non-Jews who believe that kosher food, especially kosher meat and poultry, is safer, healthier, and of higher quality than its non-kosher counterpart. Others are non-Jews whose moral or religious beliefs are satisfied by kosher certification—Muslims who buy kosher meat when halal is unavailable, and vegetarians who look for a “D” symbol indicating a meatless product, fall into this category. They might be lactose-intolerant, assured by a pareve label that a product contains no dairy; there are a host of reasons.

But many of the people who buy kosher food on purpose are Jewish, simply nonobservant. Some of them buy kosher products for the same reason as non-Jews: they believe it’s safer or of higher quality. But many more do it for reasons of community, tradition and Jewish identity.

This is particularly true on the Jewish holidays, which have become times for nonobservant Jews to connect with their history by putting Jewish food on the table. Many Jews who don’t keep kosher the rest of the year buy kosher wine and matzo for Passover, sometimes out of respect for parents or grandparents, sometimes because it makes them feel more Jewish, and sometimes because of an inchoate feeling that it would be wrong to do otherwise.

When I was researching Kosher Nation, I spoke to many nonobservant or partially observant Jews who bring out the kosher food on sacred occasions.

One woman told me she keeps a kosher-style home, meaning she does not bring in pork or shellfish, but she will buy packaged food products without kosher symbols. But when her children were little, she made the family home kosher for Passover every spring. They’d put all the bread, pasta, cereals, and other non-Passover foods in a pantry, which she would lock for the duration of the holiday. The kids would draw skulls and crossbones on the door to indicate it was off-limits for the next eight days. She also bought kosher-for-Passover food items, even though those same foods without kosher symbols were good enough the rest of the year.

“Partly it was how I was raised,” she told me. “Partly it’s a way to identify as Jewish. And partly it’s to honor my forefathers and foremothers.”

So why do I seek out kosher, Israeli wine for Shabbat and Jewish holidays? Probably because I miss Israel, where I lived for many years. Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about the (illusory) power of the artifact to collapse the distance between producer and consumer. When I hold a bottle of Yarden or Gamla wine, I feel a physical connection to the soil, the grapes, and the workers who produced it. And when I pour it into my cup and make the kiddush, I feel connected to the generations of Jews who have broken bread together over the years, and who are doing so today no matter where they live.

Illusory? Not to the soul. Names do matter, no matter how sweet the drink.

A version of this article originally appeared at

Sue Fishkoff will be blogging here all week.

Gary Shteyngart Tours Stuyvesant High School

Friday, October 29, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Gary Shteyngart (Super Sad True Love Story) gives NYC Media and The Daily Beast a tour of his alma mater, Stuyvesant High School:

You Are What You Read

Friday, October 29, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Yesterday, Scholastic launched You Are What You Read, a social networking site for readers. Users can log in using their information from their choice of a handful other popular networking sites, create a profile that includes all their favorite books, and find other readers with similar tastes. The site also asks users to create a “bookprint”—a list of five books that have had the most impact on their lives. (This particular user, for one, may never be able to complete her bookprint, because, wow, that’s tough to narrow down.)

Not surprisingly, a number of books by Jewish authors are popping up as frequent favorites: Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, and Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl have all made an appearance on the “most liked” list.


In my cursory exploration, I’ve found the Pass It On feature, which lets you keep track of the books you’ve shared with others, and the Books Around The World Map, which allows you to see what books are being read where, most intriguing of all the site’s offerings. While the celebrity endorsement seems a bit heavy-handed, I must admit I kind of like finding out which books shaped the lives of household names like Whoopi Goldberg, Daniel Radcliffe, and Bill Gates. It satisfies my voyeuristic urges in a way that’s much more genuinely interesting than the celebrity scoop I’m used to having forced upon me.

All in all, the site looks like a fun place for us book people to play around. If we can pull our heads out of the books long enough to make use of it, anyway.

Joel Chasnoff Visits…the Miami Jewish Book Festival

Friday, October 29, 2010 | Permalink

NETWORK author Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah) will be blogging for the JBC over the next month about his travels around the country for Jewish Book Month. Be sure to check out his website to see if he’ll be visiting a city near you…maybe you’ll even end up in one of his posts! And, if you haven’t read his posts for the JBC/MJL Author Blog, you can find them all here.

Terrific event last night at the Miami Jewish Book Festival.

About a hundred people showed up. The crowd was focused, asked great questions, and was totally engaged, except for that one guy in the front row, a 90-plus-year-old man who brought his own oxygen tank and nodded off halfway through my introduction.

It was an older audience – lots of sixties and seventies, and older – and their questions reflected their demographic. I’ve done a few of these book events now – DetroitColumbus, and, last Sunday, DC – and I’ve noticed a connection between the general age of the audience and the questions they ask.

Younger crowds, like the one in DC, ask questions about my military service itself: Was it difficult? Did I see action? Did I pull the trigger and/or get shot?

Middle-aged crowds, folks in their forties and fifties, are interested in the backstory: What was my upbringing like? And what compelled a nice Jewish boy like me to join the Israeli Army in the first place?

And older crowds, like the one last night, always want to know one thing:

“What did your parents say when you told them you were moving to Israel to join the army?”

Last night, I answered that question the way I always do – with a short reading from the second chapter of my book, the chapter called “Mr. Bay City High School”, in which I go to breakfast at an IHOP restaurant with my father and tell him that I plan to join the IDF.

The reading always gets a laugh. But I always wonder if the audience is laughing at my father’s shock or my own naivety that I, the skinny Jewish kid from Chicago, actually think I might be a hero in the legendary Israeli Army.

Joel Chasnoff is the author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, a comedic memoir about his year as a combat soldier in the Israeli Army, published by Simon and Schuster. This fall, he’ll blog his book tour across America for the Jewish Book Council. Visit Joel and read excerpts from his book at

Book Tour 2010: Joel Chasnoff

Thursday, October 28, 2010 | Permalink

NETWORK author Joel Chasnoff (The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah) will be blogging for the JBC over the next month about his travels around the country for Jewish Book Month. Be sure to check out his website to see if he’ll be visiting a city near you…maybe you’ll even end up in one of his posts! And, if you haven’t read his posts for the JBC/MJL Author Blog, you can find them all here.

Just landed in Miami for tonight’s event at the Alper JCC, and already it’s been a harrowing day.

The chaos began at 7:30 this morning. I was in the cab on the way to La Guardia when my wife called to thank me for leaving her the Macbook. In our house, we have two computers – an 8-year-old Dell desktop that couldn’t detect a virus to save its life, and a glorious new Macbook Air that detects WiFi like a dream, weighs less than a glass of milk, and that I purchased specifically to take on business trips like this one.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The Macbook,” she continued. “It’s sitting right here on the kitchen table. You didn’t leave it on purpose?”

So instead of blogging from the confines of my luxury hotel room, I’m sitting in the hotel Business Center three feet away from a 50-ish woman in faux pearls and a pants suit, whistling “This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land” while Xeroxing flow charts on the public copier.

It’s just as well. Because to really get a sense of what it’s like to go on book tour, you need to understand the ins and outs of life on the road: the early morning taxi rides, the missed flights and random security checks, the hotel rooms that could be in any city in America, and the scrounging through airport garbage cans for the receipts for your bagel and tea because you just remembered that you actually get reimbursed for food as long as it’s less than twelve dollars.

Not that I’m in any way complaining. In fact, what makes all of this bearable – no, enjoyable – is the chance to talk about my book to an audience who actually cares. We authors spend years crafting our books. (In my case, my contract with Simon and Schuster specified that I write the book in nine months; in the end, it took three years.) We fret over commas, spend hours debating whether or not to split one sentence into two, and watch in horror as editors cut entire chapters from our work…

Then, finally, the book comes out. And we wonder, paranoid, if anyone will even bother to read it.

Which is why every author, deep down and no matter how much he or she complains, is thrilled to go on book tour: it’s the only way to know for sure that somebody gives a damn about our precious baby.

More thoughts later after tonight’s reading in Miami…

Joel Chasnoff is the author of The 188th Crybaby Brigade, a comedic memoir about his year as a combat soldier in the Israeli Army, published by Simon and Schuster. This fall, he’ll blog his book tour across America for the Jewish Book Council. Visit Joel and read excerpts from his book at