The ProsenPeople

Midrash Manicures: The Torah on Your Tips

Wednesday, December 07, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Sharon B.

Forget those little flowers you used to get painted on your pinkie when you were nine-- join the big leagues of manicure mania with Rabbi Yael Buechler and her Midrash Manicures!

Rabbi Buechler began doing her own manicures as a middle school student in 1996-- since then, she has developed a nail business, Nails & Co., and a website, MidrashManicures.com!

As you can see on her website, Rabbi Buechler has designed manicures anywhere from intricate scenes of Noah’s Ark, to The Ten Plagues for Passover, to famous biblical phrases. Her manicures have been discussed by celebrities including Jon Stewart and Barry Manilow, and websites like the New York Times and Tabletmag.com

Now, if only someone would develop scratch and sniff polish... 'cause how tasty does that apple look?!

Writers Should Get Up Early

Wednesday, December 07, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Matthue Roth blogged about publishing a real life old-fashioned book. He will be blogging all week for JBC and MJL.

As a glutton for torture (and as a recent parent, which is kind of the same thing), I’ve been taking advantage of early mornings. My kids wake up at 6:30 or so, and I leave for the day-job at 8:00ish — so if I’ve ever dreamed of getting anything done before I leave (ha ha, I said dreamed), I’d better be doing it early.

I often get asked what my best writing times are. Usually I go on for hours — I’m either the best or worst interview you’ve had, if, you know, you’re an interviewer — but that question is simple. Late at night or early in the morning. Partly, it’s because no one else is around to distract you. Partly, I think, it’s that those are the times that are closest to sleep, when your mind is most open and your memories are all jumbled up and free-associating and fictionalizing themselves. Those are the times I started writing Automatic. It’s a book where a lot of things blend together, the people I grew up with and growing up Jewish and working-class and my best friend dying and the music that we were listening to as it was all happening.

Those times are when our inhibitions are at their lowest, too. When you can sort of force yourself to write about all those things that you wouldn’t write about otherwise, unless you were drunk or feeling really intense.

Earliness is in our genes. Abraham was an early riser. He used to pray at the moment the sun rises, and there’s still a tradition that, at the moment the sun clears the horizon, the gates of Heaven are open to any prayer sent their way. One of my favorite bits of Jewish historical apocrypha is this: The first minyan of the morning used to be called the “thieves’ minyan,” since they had to be out early to lie in wait for unsuspecting travelers to pass…and even if you were going to be a thief, you still had to pray.

I remember reading that both Michael Chabon and Salman Rushdie work from 10-3. (I also remember thinking, when I read that, really? They’re both amazing writers, and both masters of the craft, but in my too-hardcore-fanboy estimation, both have gotten a little soft and overconfident with their storytelling. The Chabon who wrote the breathtaking, pulse-stopping first scene of Wonder Boys, I don’t think that could ever have happened at 10:30, between cups of coffee. Same with the page-long description of Saleem Sinai’s nose in Midnight’s Children–which, by the way, I strongly feel should be a mission statement for Jewish writers. Or Jews in general.)

I’m probably venting. Also, I have the luxury of having a day-job and a job writing. Normally, it’s an insane balancing act. But it’s that same stress that keeps my passion intact, I hope. The same way TV shows inevitably go downhill once the two forbidden characters consummate their untouchable lust for each other (Moonlighting, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), great writers always seem to write their greatest books before they get discovered.* I’m not claiming to be a great writer (although I think I’m a pretty good one). But I hope that, relative to the stories I’ve written before, I still have some of my best stuff yet to be written.

________
*–Or, admittedly, maybe we just claim those books as great, and when they try something else, we inevitably have to compare it, to the new work’s detriment. But all love has to spring from somewhere.

Matthue Roth's newest book is Automatic. He is also the author of three novels and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. His screenplay 1/20 is currently in production as a feature film.

Book Cover of the Week: Seriously, Just Go to Sleep

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The children's version of Adam Mansbach's smash success (coming April 2012)...


Speaking of General Grant...

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Speaking of General Grant and the Jews, have you seen the book trailer for When General Grant Expelled the Jews? If not, check it out below:


JBC Bookshelf: Series, Art, and Fiction

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It seems like every time I work through the books on my desk a new stack magically appears...

As you can see from the highlights (from the stack) below, two of our favorite Jewish series (Jewish Encounters (Schocken Books/Nextbook Press) and Jewish Lives (Yale University Press)) continue to grow as they continue to address interesting figures and topics in Jewish history in 2012. And, while you wait for the latest in fiction and Jewish series, check out the Visual Art books below--they make wonderful Chanukah gifts!

The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde, Janet Bishop, et al. (June 2011, Yale University Press)

Find out more about the Steins by watching these videos

Gay Block: About Love: Photographs and Films 1973-2011, Anne Wilkes Tucker (September 2011, Radius Books)
View sample photographs from the book here

50 Jewish Artists You Should Know, Edward van Voolen (October 2011, Presetel Publishing)
The latest addition to the You Should Know series

The Street Sweeper, Elliot Perlman (January 2012, Riverhead Books) 
Watch an interview with Perlman on his latest book

Walther Rathenau: Weimar's Fallen Statesman, Shulamit Volkov (January 2012, Yale University Press)
Served as Foreign Ministry of Germany during the Weimar Republic before he was assassinated in June 1922

When General Grant Expelled the Jews, Jonathan Sarna (March 2012, Schocken Books/Nextbook Press)
Check out these events throughout the spring to hear Sarna discuss his latest work

Jumping!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011 | Permalink

by Elyse Ingber

Jump for joy.  Jump for Jenny.  Jump-A-Thon.  Jump for Colorectal Cancer Research. 

Wait, what? What is all of this jumping?

Through Jewish Book Council, Sid Jacobson JCC engaged Ellen Bari, author of Jumping Jenny, to entertain the children of our Early Childhood Center on November 16. Ellen worked with both the Center for the Arts and the Early Childhood Center directors and teachers to develop a multi-media program to capture the attention of our 2-, 3-, and 4-year olds. The students colored cut-outs of Jenny, the book’s main character, and our pre-sale of the book ensured that they went home with a signed copy. It was an incredibly successful day.

But it wasn’t over!

Inspired by Jumping Jenny, the children decided that, like Jenny, they could use their jumping for good. And so, the Jump-A-Thon was born. On November 30, parents and friends sponsored children at both the JCC and Brookville campus Bernice Jacobson Day School & Camp for a penny a jump in honor of an Early Childhood Center teacher who was recently diagnosed with colorectal cancer. In total, the center jumped 8,812 times and raised over $2,000 for the Colon Cancer Alliance.

There was tzedakah, there was laughter, there was a connection to a book that urged us to make a difference.  And, yes, we jumped for joy.

Elyse Ingber is the director of performance and visual arts at the Sid Jacobson JCC.

Publishing a Real Life Old-Fashioned Book

Monday, December 05, 2011 | Permalink
Matthue Roth's latest book, Automatic, is now available. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Here's the thing about being both an author and a blogger: It makes you impatient. When I write a rant or draw a cartoon, I scan it in, click a few buttons, and -- zoomba! -- the world gets it. Or, you know, anyone who happens to be looking at my Twitter page at that moment. When I write a book, I send it to my agent, the editor, the publisher, the copy editor, and then, three years later, you can walk to a bookstore and pick it up.

I'm sure there's some Jewish lesson I should be able to glean from this. Like, how Jerusalem wasn't burned in a day or how over a thousand years passed between the time the Gemara was written and the time it was printed up in its first printed version, the Vilna Shas, the kind that we read today, with all the wacky columns and stuff.

Except, not really. Because the Talmud is called the oral Torah, and the essence of a story is in the telling, not when it's written down and printed with a day-glo green cover and sent to a bookstore. There's something about the immediacy of storytelling that the three-year publishing process, which is standard for the industry, has missed out on. And, weirdly, I think the Internet is bringing it back.

So, partly because I'm a naturally impatient person -- and also partly because it's 15,000 words, which is a weird length that's way too long for a short story and way too short for a novel -- I put out this new book, Automatic, and I did it myself.

I didn't just write it in a day. I spent most of a year editing it. I'd probably still be editing it, except that it's sort of about the band R.E.M. (it's also sort of about my best friend dying) -- and, one day a few weeks ago, R.E.M. broke up. It's now or never, I told myself. In the space of half an hour, I'd signed up for a Kindle author account. And then I hit send, just like sending an email -- and, zoomba. I'd published a book.

Amazon is sort of a double-edged sword -- yes, it's crazy that they own half the universe, but it's an author's dream because THEY ACTUALLY SELL BOOKS. People who never go to bookstores, people like most of my family, will click on Amazon and buy a book in a second. (I also put it on Smashwords as a pdf -- also $2 -- if you don't have a Kindle.)

But I'm old-fashioned. I don't own a Kindle and I don't like reading long things online. Plus, I'm a design slut. I like things that look cool, and books that open like toys, and books that smell like books. So I designed a non-Kindle edition that does all the things ebooks will never do -- it has hand lettering and easy-on-the-eyes layouts, and layouts on the page that (hopefully) make you feel like you're luxuriating in something, not just squeezing the words out of a mass-market paperback. (But, I promise, no annoyingly coy stuff or Fun Fonts). I also made a die-cut front cover, because, dammit, books are meant to be touched.

 

I showed it to my friend/icon/if-I-wasn't-a-Hasidic-Jew-I'd-say-"idol" Richard Nash, who said, "Oh, it's a zine!" And I thought, Oh, yeah -- that's it exactly. Fifteen years after being a teenage zine-maker, using a copy machine at my summer job, I've reverted to being exactly where I started. It isn't glamorous, but hopefully, the product is. And there are worse things in the world. 

I know self-publishing is still a dirty word -- it's like Amanda Hocking said, authors shouldn't have time to do all the stuff involved with publishing; we're too busy being authors. And I've been really fortunate to have people like Scholastic and Soft Skull to take the foot-dragging stuff out of my hands for my big projects. But it's also nice to finger this little handmade thing in my hand and say, dammit, this is mine.


Matthue Roth's newest book is Automatic. He is also the author of three novels and the memoir Yom Kippur a Go-Go, and is an associate editor at MyJewishLearning.com. His screenplay 1/20 is currently in production as a feature film.

Randy Susan Meyers on her Jewish Book Festival Ride

Friday, December 02, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Randy Susan Meyers (The Murderer's Daughters) talks about her recent Jewish Book Network tour for The Huffington Post:

"Don't forget; Jewish people read an enormous amount," my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent said before my book launch. "We really love books."

I nodded. Yes, I knew that -- at least I knew it in as much as I was Jewish and I read -- as did my mother, my sister, and my daughters, but could I raise that sample to the status of landslide? Discerning what was true in my culture was fraught with difficulty. I grew up with a slight case of anomie, surrounded by a cultural belief that all-things-Jewish equals families-pushing-one-towards-great-achievement, while, among other family oddities, my grandmother taught me to shoplift.

 Continue reading here.

Food, Music and Meshugas: Bringing the Lower East Side to Life

Thursday, December 01, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Chris Moriarty wrote about writing her new book and songs of hope and failureShe will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

One of my main goals in writing The Inquisitor’s Apprentice was to bring the Lower East Side to life for my own kids and make it a place they’d want to visit and learn more about. And what brings the past to life better than foodmusic, and theater?

Of course there’s a plethora of great books about every aspect of life on the Lower East Side. But here -- as cultural comfort food for the soul -- are my favorite books about food, klezmer, and Yiddish theater.

The best book bar none about food on the Lower East Side is Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement. Ziegleman turns bare bones menus into a comprehensive account of how immigrant families worked, shopped, ate, and lived on the Lower East Side. Her portraits of the five 
families are sensitive, beautifully written, and at times deeply moving. And the book is packed to the gills with gems of forgotten culinary history. Such as the fact that shmaltz was mostly made with goose fat until the 1930s, when Jewish gangsters began to run illegal chicken farming operations near the East River. Who knew?

There are a number of excellent books about Klezmer, but my favorite is David Saposnik’s Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World. As someone who grew up in folksinging circles where people bragged about having known Bobby Zimmerman ‘back when’ or made out in the back seat of a car with Pete Seeger (true story, seriously), I really enjoyed the way Saposnik blends the history of klezmer with a firsthand account of the Klezmer revival and its ties to the larger folk music scene.

Stefan Kanfer’s Stardust Lost: the Triumph, Tragedy and Meshugas of the Yiddish Theater in America might just be my favorite nonfiction book of the last decade. There is a charm to this book which is difficult to describe. Sure, Kanfer has great material to work with: the glamour of Thomashevsky, the star power of David Kessler, the terrible irony of Yiddish theater reaching its apex as an art form just as the gates to Ellis Island were slamming shut.

But Kanfer brings a light touch to his material, and a prose style that combines humor and tragedy almost as deftly as the great artists he writes about. Stardust Lost is one of the very few nonfiction books that I’ve actually reread just for the sheer fun of it.

Nahma Sandrow’s much heftier Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater is less of an introduction to Yiddish theater than a sumptuous banquet for those who already know and love it. She chronicles major and minor figures, covering material that might only get a cursory mention in more general histories. Her writing is scholarly yet highly readable. And the book is a treasury of delicious stories about the flamboyant lives and scandalous loves of Yiddish theater’s famous and not-so-famous. If there are any Yiddish theater fans on your Hanukkah list, this is a book they’ll want to curl up with on a cold winter evening.

Chris Moriarty's most recent book, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, is now available.

Songs of Hope and Failure

Wednesday, November 30, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Chris Moriarty wrote about why she wrote The Inquisitor's Apprentice. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

So the tents have come down at Zuccotti Park. Occupy Wall Street is over. Or, as the more hopeful would have it, it has morphed into Occupy Everywhere. I hope they’re right. I hope Occupy Wall Street does become Occupy Everywhere. I hope the issues of the 99 percent become a focus of the upcoming Presidential campaign. And I hope real, lasting, meaningful change comes of this movement.

But just for a moment I’d like to look at the other side of the coin.

I’d like to sing the praises of failure. I’d like to point out that failure is in fact the universal fate of truly transformative social, political, or religious movements. And I’d like to argue that graceful failure matters just as much for revolutionaries as it does for source code and suspension bridges.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about graceful failure ever since Simchat Torah. This year it fell just after the Occupy Wall Street march on Times Square. My husband and I were more spectators than marchers, since we had two sleepy kids in tow. But a few days later when I looked at the bright faces of the children gathered under the tent of the upraised prayer shawls, whispering about important things like chocolate while we grownups droned on overhead about death and creation, I suddenly remembered the faces I’d seen streaming out of Times Square after the march.

It was a very New York crowd: a crowd of every age and color and social class. There was a radiant joy and hope in those faces that is all too rare in America today. And the sight of that great flood of humanity streaming across Manhattan reminded me powerfully of Martin Luther King Jr.’s prophetic words about justice rolling down like a mighty river.

Of course justice never did roll down like a mighty river. If it had, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate crime blog would be a lot quieter than it is. And the statistics on African-American children in poverty and African-American men in prison would not be source of national shame. The history of transformational politics in America is essentially a lesson in failing, failing again, and failing better. The late Howard Zinn dedicated much of his life to documenting this history. And more recently two wonderful books -- John Nichols’s The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism and James R. Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A ShortStory of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided GildedAge America -- have documented this underground history.

Martin Luther King knew this history. And he had a theologian’s grasp of the readings that waft over the heads of the children in synagogues all over the world each Simchat Torah. King understood that failure is the fate of all truly transformational social movements. If you read through the arc of his life and writings, you see him always pushing toward the next goal, peering around the next bend in the road, reminding people that the moment you begin to reify a movement -- to become infatuated with success or paralyzed by the fear of failure -- you have started the slow slide from revolution to institution, from transformation to status quo. This was one of his great contributions to American politics, though it’s one that is a lot harder to quantify and celebrate than his more tangible successes.

People like to tell fairy tales, of course. And as a fantasy writer I’d be the last person to claim that fairy tales are mere escapism. Fantasy turns a magic mirror on our world that can reveal long-accepted injustices and inspire us to transform society in light of our highest ideals. But many fairy tales have an insidious lie at their hearts: the promise of a happily ever after where conflict and corruption are banished; the promise that slaying dragons is a once-in-a-lifetime event, something you do right before sailing off to what James Thurber (tongue firmly in cheek as usual) called ‘the blessed isles of Ever After.’

But in real life there are no blessed isles of Ever After. In real life Moses dies in the desert. In real life Martin Luther King, Jr. died just as he was beginning to take on the truly intractable problems of socioeconomic injustice in America. In real life the promised land is always on the other side of the river -- and transformative social movements are always crushed or corrupted, diluted or deflected, or simply lost in the flood of daily trivia.

So as we talk about what it means that the tents have come down, we should remind ourselves that it was never a question of whether Occupy Wall Street would fail. It was only a question of when. Occupy Wall Street will inevitably fail, just as all truly radical attempts at transformation fail. But if it fails well, then it will have brought us to the bank of the river. And it will have given us the courage to learn from our failure, turn back to the beginning of the scroll, and risk everything once again in a new act of creation.

Like so much of the Jewish liturgy, Simchat Torah is a ritual that meets you wherever you are in life and seems to impart new wisdom from year to year. As a parent I see it mainly as a time to give thanks for the gift of children and reaffirm my commitment to their Jewish education. But this year I was struck by the great gift that the ritual gives to our children: the gift of teaching them that failure is, if not exactly sweet, then at least part of the life’s cycle and no more to be feared than any other part.

That’s not a gift most of us are very good at giving our children in real life. Don’t get me wrong; kids certainly get plenty of chances to watch their parents fail. But we rarely do it gracefully. Usually we look around for someone else to blame. Or we lie to ourselves -- especially in the realm of politics -- settling for the achievable compromise and then reacting with fury when anyone has the chutzpah to remind us that we once hoped for bigger and better things. Simchat Torah cuts through the denial, in the most simple and unsentimental way imaginable.

And so we sing our songs of hope and failure. We put up our tents even though we know they will be taken down. We tell our children that the Torah is as sweet as honey. We tell them about Moses dying in the desert within sight of the promised land. And then we turn the scroll back to the beginning, and we start a new year of struggle, and we hope we fail better next time.

Chris Moriarty's most recent book, The Inquisitor's Apprentice, is now available.