The ProsenPeople

The Stories that Don’t Make It

Tuesday, September 27, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Stuart Nadler blogged for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe about casting off one’s sins

At a certain point in the process, I had to do the cutting. Not the small cutting, the excising of some misplaced lines, the usual reshuffling that revision turns into at the end, everything somehow feeling more surgical than therapeutic. But I had to really cut. To kill some stories. To take them out, shelve them, end them. This is what I did, in the most unsentimental of ways – stories that I’d suffered over for months at a time, pulled from the manuscript, put into the drawer. There were fourteen stories. Then there were ten. For a few weeks there were nine. Now the book exists in its final form, and there are seven stories, all handsomely put together and bound and out there for anyone to read. But what about the others, the stories that didn’t make it?

Short story collections are, at their best, a crystallized instance of a writer’s preoccupations. In most cases the medium doesn’t allow for the concentrated energy a novel does, or for the lingering, careful introspection. At their best, a certain incidental beauty emerges, a glancing touch of something lovely, or wise. I wrote the bulk of my book in Iowa City, a wonderful town with a small Jewish Community, but where, after a few months, I found the simple task of buying candles for a menorah nearly impossible. The experience stuck with me. I’d been working on a book about a piano player. I shelved it. Slowly, the stories began to touch one another, their common threads signaling, at first, a deepening fascination about religious identity. My characters, as they emerged, were secular Jews whose notion of their identity was brittle and uninformed. Why did I want those candles so badly, when I barely celebrated any other holidays? At the end of one of these stories, a character whose father is dying announces that he has no idea what it means to be Jewish. This, it seemed to me, was what my book was about. Or what it should be about. But then, so quickly, things changed. Other threads emerged: struggling families, adulterous lovers, estranged brothers. My preoccupations were shifting.

There is a distance, often, that takes root between what a writer wants to write about, and what a writer actually writes about. Outlines become useless, taunting things. A collection of stories becomes bound by ideas the writer is not entirely away of. Slowly, this began to happen to me. The woman who eventually became my editor helped me realize that the characters I’d been writing weren’t all religious, but they were all Jews. If nothing else, this was the thread.


Photo by Nina Subin

John Cheever’s advice on putting together a story collection was to put the best story up front, the next best story last, and then arrange everything else in the middle. I heard this a few weeks after my book had been acquired for publication, an occassion that to me felt like my own, private Hanukkah miracle: my book of stories would go out into the world! But there was a whole separate book I’d shelved. In it, there is a story about a brother whose twin is dying. A story about a family whose adopted son is a painting prodigy. There is a story about a boxer who falls in love with his opponent. I’m this book’s only reader now. It’s a funny thing to see: my slight obsessions rising up and falling away. My plans for a perfectly round collection loosening. This book doesn’t have a handsome cover, or a title, or really, to be honest, any future. But it exists, if for no other reason, than to remind me of how my book got made – by cutting and cutting and cutting.

Stuart Nadler is the author of The Book of Life. Check back tomorrow for his final post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog.

Casting Off

Monday, September 26, 2011 | Permalink

Stuart Nadler first book, The Book of Life, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For me, the year has always begun in September. I grew up near Boston, and part of this feeling, surely, is that the season changes then, that summer ends and school begins, that in the stores suddenly there are reminders of what’s to come: Halloween masks, potted burgundy chrysanthemums, pumpkins for sale in bins at the farm stands. Of course, September, in most cases, marks the beginning of the High Holidays. It falls late this year, the bulk of the Days of Awe spilling over into October. As I write this, we’re half a month away, and in New England, there is still the residual film of summer hanging over everything. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, perhaps, the most benevolent of all our holidays, a time devoted, in part, to an introspective critique of our sins and misgivings, our failings, the grievances we carry. I took the title of my collection of short stories, The Book of Life, from the part of the High Holiday liturgy which has been my favorite since I was young: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The stories in my book are about family – about the enduring struggle between father’s and their sons, about the difficulties between brothers. But in a large part, the stories are about the sins and errors we commit against those we love.

Growing up, these were the only services we attended. We weren’t alone. The annex of our synagogue was opened to accommodate those, like us, who still found it necessary to attend. This is the story of so much of the Reform experience this last half-century, a loosening of the traditions, a slackening, a burgeoning secular identity. But it has never been a puzzle to me why these holidays remain so important. There is a solemnity, and a sober holiness to the sight of the bereaved standing among their neighbors to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. There is the insistence of the Yahrzeit candle, and the sweet symbolism of apples and honey. And there is a certain beauty to the idea that transgressions suffered in private can be absolved in public.

But perhaps the most beautiful of the High Holiday traditions is the one least known by Reform Jews, and certainly, the one least practiced. In Hebrew, tashlikh means casting off. The ritual is a simple one: you take pieces of bread, throw them into the river as if you were feeding ducks, and watch them all float downstream. To do this is to symbolically cast away your sins, to slough off a year’s misdeeds, to start the new year fresh. This comes from the prophet Micah:

He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Yes, You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.

I was in my late twenties the first time I heard of this. I was living in Iowa City, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d moved to the Midwest from Brooklyn, and I had just begun to write the stories that would make up my first book. They were, without fail, about Jewish men struggling to connect to their faith, men struggling to free themselves from the guilt of their transgressions. There is something wonderful about the idea of casting off our sins, washing away a year’s worth of errors. During Yom Kippur, the action is a collective one. We repent aloud for sins, even if we haven’t committed them. One person’s sin is the congregation’s sin. By the time I went down to the Iowa River with a few pieces of bread stuffed into my pockets, it’d been a long while since I’d been to synagogue to celebrate the High Holidays. Ten years. Probably more. But here, on the river, in the grass, a thousand miles from home, I felt compelled to begin to reconnect, to begin anew, to cast off.

Stuart Nadler will be blogging here all week and is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network. For more information about booking Stuart, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org.

Lost and Found in Brooklyn

Friday, September 23, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lucette Lagnado wrote about an arrogant revolution and about mourning her Arab Spring. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

This past weekend I was lost — and found — in Brooklyn.

My Sunday began with an appearance on a panel about the Arab Spring at the chic, hipsterish Brooklyn Book Festival. It was an animated discussion, and my fellow panel-members were amiable, but I felt lonely, very much in the minority as I spoke out against the brutal attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The attempted storming of the embassy last week was a turning point as far as I was concerned, a time to start asking tough questions about the revolution and whether it had gone seriously off-track, to demand to know what happened to the early goals of democracy and peace on Tahrir Square.

The consensus, though, was that revolutions took time to play out – one member suggested 100 years.

And I thought there was such a desperate need for change – immediate reforms.
One thoughtful panel member from Cairo did suggest that many Egyptians were shocked by the attack, that it was unexpected; I was heartened to hear at least that there was a sense of shame about it in Egypt.

I walked out feeling oddly blue, melancholy. Here I was in Brooklyn, where I grew up, and yet I was struck by that feeling of not belonging that returns to haunt me every once in a while.

As I wandered the streets of Brooklyn Heights with its multi-million dollar mansions and elegant residents, and then of nearby Park Slope which is, if possible, looking even sleeker these days, I realized that this fashionable Brooklyn had nothing to do with the Brooklyn of my childhood, the borough where my family and I had once sought refuge, where we had found a haven among equally impoverished refugees from the Levant.

I also knew the only possible way to cope with my funk was to go immediately tothat Brooklyn.

* * * *

I have always thought it was odd that with this Brooklyn renaissance, the fact that some of the borough’s most God forsaken areas have become de rigueur, my little enclave of Bensonhurst has remained decidedly un-chic.

I return every few months and find it to be pretty much the same as it was in my childhood – staid and lacking in the coolness factor.

Some more immigrant groups have moved in, to be sure, I see a lot of Russians, and even some Hassids – but not a single hipster. Not one.

Nor any of the young professional families that favor organic food co-ops.
No, those quiet somewhat dreary blocks are pretty much the way they were when I was a kid, longing to escape and wishing there was more excitement.

My trips to Bensonhurst always have a ritual quality to them, like a religious pilgrimage. I must go to this block, I tell myself, I must pay my respects to that building.

There are no people left there that I knew, not a single familiar face — my community long moved out — yet I keep returning.

The ritual includes taking my (very obliging) husband to key markers of my childhood and pointing them out all over again.

“This was our first apartment in America,” I’ll say, “This was where Key Food, my first American supermarket was situated.”

The high point of all such trips is a visit to 67th street, the block of the Magen David Synagogue (“The Shield of David” in my book), once the center of Syrian Jewish life in New York, and its frail little neighbor, the building that housed my shul.

Magen David is still there, but it is a mortuary now. I have been told there are occasional services, possibly even for the high holidays, but it is central function is clear, and has been clear for years – it is where the community comes to honor its dead.


Photo by Peter Yang

No matter how many times I hear that, it still shocks me, still makes me sad.
As for the little annex, the one that I refer to as the Shield of Young David in my memoir, it has gone through a thousand incarnations since it was sold in the 1970s. These days, it appears to be a religious school.

On this Sunday afternoon, I make a discovery that actually helps me combat my Brooklyn Heights blues. There in the front of the building of my old shul are children – young Orthodox children scampering about, running around the courtyard.

“They are playing in the courtyard, the way you did as a child,” my husband points out.

It has taken years, decades, yet I realize that against the odds, hope has come back to this small corner of Brooklyn that continues to haunt my imagination as nowhere else on earth.

Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book,  The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World.

Celebrate the New Year with a Banned Book!

Friday, September 23, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz Dauber

Banned Books Week is starting tomorrow! According to the Banned Books Week website:

“During the last week of September every year, hundreds of libraries and bookstores around the country draw attention to the problem of censorship by mounting displays of challenged books and hosting a variety of events. The 2011 celebration of Banned Books Week will be held from September 24 through October 1. Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than 11,000 books have been challenged since 1982.”

As People of the Book, the freedom to read is definitely something we can support. Especially since Jews and Jewish authors definitely have some history of having their reading lists restricted or their books banned. So choose a book (here’s a list from the ALA of the top banned/challenged books of the past decade plus lists of classic banned books, and banned books by year), curl up and enjoy. If you want to celebrate even more, you can take part in Banned Books Week’s Virtual Read-Out, buy an I Read Banned Books bracelet  or an I Read Banned Books pin, or maybe go write something controversial that will put your name ALA’s list in the next few years and add it to the illustrious list of Jewish authors who have been banned or challenged.

Excerpt Friday

Friday, September 23, 2011 | Permalink

Today’s Excerpt Friday features Chapter 8 from Maintaining Recovery from Eating Disorders: Avoiding Relapse and Recovering Life (Naomi Feigenbaum), published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers.  In  Maintaining Recovery from Eating Disorders After, Naomi Feigenbaum confronts the often neglected subject of how to take the essential steps towards a healthy and happy life after recovering from an eating disorder. Read more details about the book here and find an excerpt below.

Chapter 8
Connecting Spiritually

When facing challenges and struggles in life, many people turn to their faith to help them succeed. The way I like to think of it is that on my own I can push through a struggle, but when I draw on my faith and spirituality I can pull through. Pushing means I am utilizing only my own strength and exerting my own energy to push away from a struggle. Pulling, by contrast, means that even in the midst of a challenge I am already connecting to something on the other side – something greater and stronger – and in doing so I am drawing on that power as I pull myself through the struggle toward something better.

Spirituality means many things to many people. Some draw strength from their religious faith, others find serenity in nature, and still others appreciate the value of connection – with a higher power, with others, and with themselves. For many people spirituality is a journey through life itself, complete with its own sets of ups and downs – periods of longing and yearning, and periods of peace and inspiration.

My spirituality is strongly linked to my religious faith. Being brought up in an Orthodox Jewish family means that religion and spirituality have played a central role in my life from the time I was born. My family’s commitment to our faith in God and to the traditions set forth by our ancestors influence every decision we make – from what food we eat to the ways in which we handle emergencies.

My childhood is full of warm memories relating to Judaism – lighting Hanukkah candles with my family beside a mountain of wrapped presents atop our piano, studying for my bat mitzvah, and enjoying the most pleasant and fun Passover Seders I have ever known. As a child and pre-teen I loved my Judaic studies courses at school and even voluntarily attended classes after-hours as part of my school’s extra-curricular learning program. Having been raised in accordance with my family’s faith, I had my spirituality spoon-fed to me as a child. As a teenager I longed to “be my own person” and “find my own way.” That was when I began to question my faith and where I belonged.

After high school I traveled to Israel, as is common in Orthodox Jewish circles, with the intention of exploring and discovering my own relationship with, and place in, the Orthodox Jewish world. I spent a year and a half abroad. I learned a lot and I grew in my religious observance. I developed a greater appreciation for the culture and history behind my faith.

When I came home from my study abroad program in Israel in the midst of a relapse, one of my – and my family’s – key concerns about my treatment was how I would be able to maintain an Orthodox Jewish life. Would there be kosher food? Would I be able to observe the Sabbath and holidays? We consulted our rabbi who advised me that I needed to follow my doctors’ orders – even if they seemed to contradict my faith – as my eating disorder was a matter of life or death. In Judaism saving a life takes precedence over all other commandments.

Luckily, I found a treatment center that was not only a terrific match for my physical, mental, and emotional needs, but for my religious and spiritual needs as well. At Renfrew all of my meals were brought in from a kosher restaurant and then portioned out to meet my specific meal plan requirements. Renfrew was sensitive to my religious observance and accommodated me during every step of my treatment. My rabbi walked me through the religious aspects of treatment and helped me stay connected to my community and lifestyle even while I spent time physically removed from it.

Read the entire chapter here.

Book Cover of the Week: Wait

Thursday, September 22, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A gorgeous cover for C.K. Williams‘s 2010 work, Wait.


Fall Jewish Book World

Thursday, September 22, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Most subscribers should have already received their fall issue of Jewish Book World, but for those patiently still waiting, here’s what you should be looking for in the mail (I love this cover!):

An Arrogant Revolution

Wednesday, September 21, 2011 | Permalink

Lucette Lagnado’s most recent book, The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, is now available. Lucette won the 2008 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

I couldn’t seem to escape Egypt this year – though I never set foot outside New York.

For months, I worked fiendishly to finish The Arrogant Years, my memoir which takes place in Cairo and New York. But whenever I’d put the book aside, I would follow news of the revolt unfolding on Tahrir Square. The revolution was addictive – I couldn’t seem to get enough of it. I found myself constantly clicking on online news of Cairo, or tuning in to CNN. It was all so exciting.

And terrifying. Even as I witnessed the euphoria, I felt a strange sense of alienation – I couldn’t feel much joy or passion, couldn’t quite cheer the protestors as the entire rest of the world seemed to be doing.

As I noted in an essay for The Wall Street Journal this weekend, I have been feeling uneasy since the start of the uprisings. Yes, I supported calls for democracy and believed that strongman Hosni Mubarak had far outstayed his welcome. I simply thought that viewing him as the cause of all of Egypt’s woes – even as the military that had ruled the country with an iron hand for 60 years was being embraced as saviors – was bizarre and misguided.

Nine months after the protests began, Mubarak is gone, on trial, and possibly on his way to being executed — but Egypt seems no closer to democracy. Worse still, it has descended into a kind of lawlessness, marked by occasional really scary incidents – attacks on Coptic Christians, the brutal sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan, and, most recently, the storming of the Israel Embassy in Cairo, which forced the departure of the Ambassador and his staff.

All of this has made me terribly sad – and brought back some awful memories to boot. Somehow I have found myself transported to an Egypt I didn’t really know, when I wasn’t even born — the Egypt of that first revolution of 1952, when King Farouk was overthrown, the military took over, and the world as my Egyptian-Jewish parents knew it turned mean and fierce. There was a certain wildness, terror to the period, I was always told. Egypt’s Jewish community, once comprised of 80,000 Jews or more, left in droves until there were only a few Jewish families, including mine, trying to hang on.

We left in 1963 and settled in New York. My parents spoke lovingly of the Egyptians they had left behind, with one exception – the dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser who was charismatic, arrogant and bombastic, and galvanized the public with a rhetoric of hate. The experience taught my family – taught all of Egyptian Jewry, I think – to be watchful and wary of revolutions and all they promise.

Hence my lack of excitement at a time everyone – even my mother-in-law – seemed to be cheering Mubarak’s ouster and the events in Tahrir Square and the promise of it all.

It is rather stunning to me how ineffectual the Egyptians have proven to be at nation-building. They were terrific protesters, the world was riveted by the daily protests and everyone raved about the “Google guy” and the “Facebook revolutionaries.” Yet none of these original leaders with their lofty promises of democracy and their slick use of the Internet has emerged to date to take the country to the next phase. Instead, the ones to watch have been the Muslim Brotherhood, who seem determined – despite their moderate patina – to take Egypt in a different and frightening direction.

This past year I could always find comfort in my book, and the very different Cairo I was conjuring up – my mother’s Cairo, the Cairo of the 1920s and 1930s, when there was genuine political debate and a tolerant society. Egypt was ruled by a monarch, yes, and yet to my mind, looking back, King Fouad seems so much more benign somehow than those military guys who came to power in 1952. The Cairo of my book is particularly striking because of the lovely status Jews enjoyed – in the same period that they faced persecution in Europe, they were rising to the top of this Arab society.

There were even Jewish Pashas, the most prestigious social title that an Egyptian could enjoy.

It seems to have been such a promising society, truly multicultural, where Jews and Moslems and Christians seemed to co-exist with a considerable degree of harmony. What I find myself wondering is why the Egyptians, as they cast about for a model of nation-building – Turkey, Iran, Hamas – don’t simply look back to this halcyon period of their own history?

Lucette Lagnado will be blogging here all week.

Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 | Permalink

It’s time for our 13th annual Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference! 

Have you written or illustrated a Jewish children’s book that you’d like to have published? Do you have a story idea? Have you published a few books already, and would like to meet more people in the field? The 13th annual JCBWI conference, sponsored by Jewish Book Council, brings together agents, editors, art directors, representatives of the Sydney Taylor Book Award and Manuscript Award, and others for a full day of discussions about Jewish children’s book publishing. Learn strategies and tips, get suggestions, and meet peers!


This year’s Jewish Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators Conference will be on Sunday, November 20, 2011 from 9 am until 5 pm. This year’s conference will be held at Temple Emanu-El on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. 

For more details and to register, click here.

November Twitter Book Club: Sweet Like Sugar

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 | Permalink

In Yiddish, there is a word for it: bashert—the person you are fated to meet. Twenty-something Benji Steiner is skeptical of the concept. But the elderly rabbi who stumbles into Benji’s office one day has no doubts. Rabbi Jacob Zuckerman’s late wife, Sophie, was his bashert. And now that she is gone, he grapples with grief and loneliness.

Touched by the rabbi’s plight, Benji becomes his helper—driving him home after work, sitting in his living room listening to stories. Their friendship baffles everyone, especially Benji’s sharp-tongued, modestly observant mother, but Benji is rediscovering something he didn’t know he’d lost.

The test of their friendship, and their faith, lies in the difficult truths they come to share. With each revelation, Benji learns what it means not just to be Jewish but to be fully human—imperfect, striving, and searching for acceptance.

Join the Jewish Book Council and author Wayne Hoffman to discuss Sweet Like Sugar on Tuesday, November 8th from 12:30 pm- 1:10 pm ESTand keep an eye out on Twitter for our next giveaway– a signed copy of the novel!

The How-To, In Case You’re New:

What is a Twitter Book Club?
A twitter book club provides the opportunity for twitter users to engage in real time conversation about a particular, predetermined book. JBC’s book club aims to provide readers with an opportunity to discuss Jewish interest titles with other interested readers electronically.

To participate…

If you aren’t already a Twitter user, please join twitter here. (Confused about Twitter all together? Visit the twitter twitorial. Follow the Jewish Book Council (@jewishbook). During the designated time and date of the book club follow the conversation by searching for #JBCBooks. If you would like to actively participate, please include #JBCBooks at the end of any comments or questions you wish to contribute.

(Note: New twitter users may have to wait up to a week before their tweets get saved in hashtag searches. Open a twitter account at least a week and a half before this discussion in order to join us!)

We hope you’ll join and enjoy the conversation! If you have something to say or a question to ask, feel free to jump in, and don’t forget to include #JBCBooks at the end of any tweet so that other participants can engage with you.