The ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Joseph Skibell

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Our third installment of “Words from our Finalists”…Joseph Skibell

Joseph…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Joseph

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

What did Hemingway say in his Paris Review interview with George Plimpton? “The hardest thing about writing is getting the words in the right order.” Typical Hemingway brevity, but that does seem to cover it.


What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

Inspiration comes from everywhere. In the last two weeks, I saw a production of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” and I heard the master guitarist Pierre Bensusan play. The creative generosity of both Shepard and Bensusan reminded me of what art can really do when it’s honest and it comes from an open and pure heart. I find that very inspiring. Being moved by their work makes me want to continue working and trying to inhabit that same open and honest space.

Who is your intended audience?

Perhaps I should be a little more ambitious, but I try to write for the entirety of the literate world. And I’m hoping that members of the literate world will read my books to members of the non-literate world. I’m sometimes saddened that adult readers, unlike their “young adult” counterparts, seem fairly unadventurous, that fiction that deals with small, domestic issues, preferably in the mode of realism, seems so much more palpable to these adult readers than do daring, ambitious “ill-behaved” books that take on bigger issues in a more playful, ferocious or rambunctious style.

Milan Kundera calls these “ill-behaved” books “the children of Tristram Shandy” as opposed to the “well-behaved” books, which he calls “children of Clarissa.” Rushdie’s Midnight Children, Grass’s The Tin Drum,Kundera’s own Book of Laughter and Forgetting, the novels of Beckett, Kafka and Bellow all fall into this category of ill-behaved books, as do my A Blessing on the Moon and A Curable Romantic.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I have a short list of new projects, but nothing that can be spoken about yet, really. I think I’ve found the subject for my next novel, and I’m excited about that, and it’s going to be very different from the other three books.

What are you reading now?

The novel I’m urging onto anybody who will listen is Howard Norman’s What is Left the Daughter. Norman is one of our finest novelists with a singular and idiosyncratic voice. He’s unpretentiously gifted, and this book is one of his best. I’m planning on reading it again, actually. I don’t quite understand how he achieves the effects he achieves. The book is so moving, but it’s hard to say why. His work has that same honesty and purity I mentioned finding in the Shepard’s play and in Bensusan’s playing. A spirit of childlike play, I guess, combined with a hungry intelligence and an artful sense of integrity.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was in Mr. Bravenec’s sixth grade class at Geo. A. Rush Elementary School in Lubbock, Texas, when I read Anthony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan. According to Scaduto, Dylan read John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row as a kid and was so turned on by it that he read all of Steinbeck’s work after that. At the time, I wanted to grow up to be Bob Dylan, so I thought I should probably do everything Bob Dylan did as a child in order to realize this ambition. I got a copy of Cannery Row out of the library and I read it, and I was so turned on by it, I read everything that Steinbeck had written, also. By the time I was done, though, I no longer wanted to be Bob Dylan. I wanted to be John Steinbeck.

Later, during his Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, Dylan visited Jack Kerouac’s grave. I read about this in Rolling Stone Magazine. I’d never heard of Jack Kerouac, but I bought a copy of On the Road, and then I read all of Kerouac’s work, which I also found inspiring.

Still, I didn’t think I could be a novelist, because — especially after reading Steinbeck — I thought a novelist had to know how to brush out a horse and repair a motor and dissect mollusks and things like that. But then I read Voltaire’sCandide – I was in the seventh grade; I remember reading it during my algebra class – and I thought to myself: Hey, I could write a book like this. I mean, there are no animals in Candide, no one repairs a motor, there’s no science, there’s barely a landscape.

So, really, I have Bob Dylan to thank for all of this, I guess. Thanks, Bob.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

It’s easy to get sidetracked by big advances and awards and being on bestseller lists and things like that. Writing can be such a lonely pursuit, and I know so many writers who end up craving those things, just so they know that there’s somebody out there who actually cares about what they’re doing. So I try to remember why books were important to me in the first place.

I think it’s the same with really great writing. When someone like W.B. Yeats says, “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned,” or Jackson Browne describes Culver City as a place “where the ghostly specter of Howard Hughes/hovers in the smoke of a thousand barbeques,” you think to yourself, “Man, that’s about as good as it gets.” I mean, these are writers whose use of words and thoughts and observations and emotions and meter and sound is as astonishing and as inspiring as the physical stuff Shaun White can do on a snowboard.You know, when you see somebody like Shaun White do something really amazing on a snowboard, you kind of empathize with him. He sort of stands in for all of humanity. You think, “Wow, it’s amazing that he can do that,” but you’re also thinking, “Wow, it’s amazing that a human being can do that.”

And because of writing like this, you actually experience something you wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise, and it’s something you wouldn’t have been able to experience in any other way.

So I guess, for me, that would really be the mountaintop, or the pinnacle of success – knowing that your work is speaking to another person in a way that reverberates with their concerns and their lives in a meaningful way.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

The discipline of writing every day is so intensely focused that I have next to no memory about the process itself, though it seems to involve a Cross pen, an AMPAD legal-size “Evidence” pad – 100 sheets, Canary yellow, Wide Ruled, 8½” x 14” with a double-thick back for extra support (these are harder and harder to come by these days) – a chair, a desk, and a hot beverage, sometimes coffee, sometimes tea. I try to keep a very low page count every day, so that doing the work always remains enjoyable.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

With A Blessing on the Moon, I wanted to speak to the reader so deeply that the book enters the reader’s dream-life, and I’ve been told on many occasions, by readers, that this is how the novel works. With The English Disease, I simply wanted to make the reader laugh.

A Curable Romantic was a bit different. WithA Curable Romantic, my hope was that Dr. Sammelsohn, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, would seem like a sweet and endearing friend accompanying the reader wherever he or she went for the few weeks it takes to read the book.

At heart, I hope my novels work as a kind of cure for that deep loneliness I imagine we all feel, the writer’s voice whispering intimately into the reader’s inner ear, speaking about the most essential things: love, family, death, hope, desire, dreams.

You can read more about Joseph Skibell by visiting his website: http://www.josephskibell.com/

Jewish Book Carnival: March

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This month’s Jewish Book Carnival is up over at Linda K. Wertheimer’s  Jewish Muse blog. We contributed a few posts on our trip to Jerusalem International Book Fair last month, but check out the link above to view Anita Diamant’s post  on Purim, Dani Shapiro’s post on “both the pleasure – and angst – of having the last word when you write about those you know,” Erika Dreifus’s tribute to Arnost Lustig, and more.

Check out next month’s Jewish Book Carnival right here on the JBC Blog! Interested in submitting for April? E-mail me at Naomi@Jewishbooks.org

Support Emerging Writers

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

I’ve been a subscriber, and fan, of One Story for several years now, but seem to always be out of town the weekend of their annual benefit: The Literary Debutante Ball: A Celebration of Emerging Writers. Thankfully, this year my luck may have turned toward the good. This year’s benefit will be held on April 29th and will feature JBC friend and author, Dani Shapiro.

More information about the benefit:

The Literary Debutante Ball is a benefit that celebrates One Story magazine, the publication of our debutantes, and honors one writer who has been an exceptional mentor to others. The ball will feature specialty cocktails, music, dancing, and a silent art auction.

The highlight of the benefit will be the formal “presentation” of One Story authors who have published their debut books in the past year. Each writer will be escorted by an established author and/or editor who has been a mentor to them. This year, One Story will also honor the novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro, for her years of extraordinary support of emerging writers.

All proceeds will benefit One Story, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and aid it in its mission to support the art form of the short story and the authors who write them. Tickets for the ball start at $50 each. Higher level individual, corporate, and in-kind sponsorships are available and most welcome. For complete details and benefits of donating to One Story, contact Maribeth Batcha at maribeth@one-story.com. No one under 21 years old will be admitted.

When:Friday, April 29, 2011, 7pm – 11pm
Where:The Invisible Dog Art Center
51 Bergen St. (between Smith St. & Court St.)
Brooklyn, NY 11201

Read more here.

And, read about One Story’s mission here.

**BONUS**Their latest issue features an Etgar Keret story.

Miss Venezuela Material

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Reyna Simnegar, the author of Persian Food from the Non-Persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love, wrote about Sephardim Strike Back! She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It had been 9 years since I had not seen my beautiful cousin Isha. She lives a busy life in Florida working in the restaurant industry and going to school. It was my turn to feed her, and I decided to invite her for Shabbat dinner. After all, is there a better time than Shabbat to impress anyone with delectable dishes?

Isha is half Venezuelan and half American. She is the perfect combination of Latin American charm and American beauty. As we were reminiscing about the past (over a slice of my favorite dessert, Persian Roulade), it was impossible not to talk about how much we suffered starving together in the name of our modeling careers. You see, both Isha and I were part of a Venezuelan modeling agency that recruited girls for the Miss Venezuela beauty pageant.

For many Venezuelan little girls their dream is to become a beauty queen. I am not talking about the kind-hearted queen that has a talent and visits orphans, I am talking about a queen whose attributes are completely based on outer beauty and her talent in memory; that is how talented she is to be able to memorize the right answers to any possible question the jurors might have.

Isha, with her exotic mixed looks and height, actually made all the way. When she refused to have plastic surgery to add a little here and take a little from there, she was let go. I was a little less “lucky,” I was simply too short to make the cut. No plastic surgery would have helped with a height problem! These castings are the most humiliating situations anyone can put herself through, and your self-esteem, if completely based on your looks, becomes absolutely shattered.

Going through that experience really helped me understand the concept of modesty in the Jewish world. Having grown up in a country where clothing is an option, it never occurred to me that by the simple act of covering certain parts of my body I would regain an incredible amount of self-appreciation I had lost during my upbringing. I am not going to deny that in the beginning modesty was a really difficult concept to grasp, not to mention to embrace. However, the longer I covered certain parts of my body, the more sensitive and special they became.

Seeing myself as more than just a body or a face really helped me comprehend how I am not really what people can see, but I am the soul that lives inside. And, even though I always knew that true beauty lies inside, I was never really able to grasp this concept until I stop focusing only in the outside.

I love looking good, working out, feeling healthy and beautiful. However, I love it even more when I go to sleep knowing I have worked equally hard on making my inner beauty, that is my true beauty, equally presentable.

A woman’s inner beauty shines through and permeates into her outer beauty, and I hope I can be an example of this concept, even if I don’t make the height requirement!

PERSIAN ROULADE

This is by far the most popular dessert at my Shabbat table! It is amazing to see people’s eyes when I bring it to the table—and also to witness their puzzled faces trying to figure out the unfamiliar flavor they can’t decipher (rose water).

Versatility is what is great about this recipe! You can use the same cake recipe I provide you, but the fillings are endless. Since I usually serve this cake after a meat meal, I use pareve (nondairy) whipping cream (such as Rich’s Whip). Other fun fillings are raspberry jam, Nutella (if dairy), and even date butter. I also like to use rum or brandy mixed with a bit of water to moisten the cake if I do not have rose water handy. I promise, this will be a hit! Check out more videos at my website.

TRICKS OF THE TRADE

The eggs should be at room temperature so that you can whip them to maximum volume. The secret to making the parchment paper stay in the baking pan is to spray the pan with a little oil or water before lining it. Cut slits in the corners of the paper for a snug fit. This cake freezes beautifully—just wrap in parchment paper and then in foil. Also, it is important to use parchment paper and not wax paper; these are not the same product. Make sure not to overbake this cake or it will crack. You can drizzle some powdered sugar on the cake before rolling it so it doesn’t stick to the parchment paper. For a cleaner look, you can cut off both ends of the cake…I’ll bet you can’t resist eating them!

Cake
4 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup flour
1/4 cup rose water (to moisten cake)

Cream
1 pint pareve whipping cream, divided
1 cup powdered sugar

Garnish
powdered sugar
4 strawberries
parve whipping cream
chocolate shavings or melted chocolate chips (optional!)

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a 17”x12”x1” jellyroll sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
2. Beat eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer for 1 minute or until fluffy. Add sugar and vanilla and continue beating for 3 minutes or until the mixture begins to turn pale yellow.
3. Gently and thoroughly fold in baking powder and flour with a flat spatula, making sure not to deflate the eggs. Spread batter evenly onto the prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes or until center springs back when lightly pressed.
4. In the meantime, whip pareve whipping cream until peaks form. Add sugar and combine. Set aside.
5. When cake is ready, hold the corners of the paper and remove from tray onto a flat surface. Peel cake off paper. Roll, 12-inch side in, along with the parchment paper. Set aside for a few minutes.
6. Unroll and use a pastry brush to moisten the top of the cake with rose water. Spread cream evenly on the cake, leaving some for garnish. Roll again
7. Place on a platter, seam side down, and garnish with powdered sugar, melted chocolate, pareve whipped cream, and strawberries, as desired. Refrigerate if not serving immediately.

Yield: 10 slices.

Reyna Simnegar‘s Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love is now available. 

NYC Event: Jonathan Safran Foer and Etgar Keret

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Mark your calendar now for this fantastic event at Symphony Space on April 6th with Jonathan Safran Foer and Etgar Keret:

The wildly inventive Israeli master joins forces with the author of Everything is Illuminated to present an evening of surprising tales performed by Liev Schreiber (A View From The Bridgeand Everything is Illuminated) and other actors.

The event is a part of Symphony Space’s “Selected Shorts” series, which creates an evening of literature in performance. “Selected Shorts” brings together stories by established and emerging writers, giving them a new life as a performance by stars of the stage and screen.

Wed, Apr 6 at 7 pm
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre
$27; Member $23; 30 & Under $15

Buy Tickets Here.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Julie Orringer

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Second up in “Words from our Finalists”…Julie Orringer

Julie…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Julie

 

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

At the moment, because I have a nine-month-old son, the most challenging thing is finding enough time to work.  But every new piece I’ve written has been uniquely challenging; in The Invisible Bridgeone of the greatest difficulties was learning to balance the story’s historical elements with its fictional ones.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

My grandfather’s experiences inspired me to write this novel.  But my day-to-day inspiration is my husband, Ryan Harty, who’s also a fiction writer.  He knows how to make a schedule and stick to it, and he holds me to a very high standard—he’s an early reader of my drafts, and lets me know when something’s not working.

Who is your intended audience?

Anyone who likes to read.  But I think we all hope to reach readers whose lives are similar to those of our characters.  It’s been particularly moving to have former Hungarian forced labor inmates come to readings and tell me that their experiences mirrored the ones I describe in the novel.

I’m working on a novel about Varian Fry, the New York journalist who went to Marseille in 1940 to save nearly two thousand Jewish and anti-Nazi writers, artists, and intellectuals who’d been blacklisted by the Gestapo.  I learned about Fry while I was researching The Invisible Bridge, and it was clear that his story would take an entire novel to tell.  The novel pursues a fictional line alongside Fry’s real-life experiences.Are you working on anything new right now?

What are you reading now?

I just finished rereading David Bezmozgis’s wonderful collection, Natasha and Other Stories, about a community of Russian Jews in Toronto, and recently picked up Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, about a fantastical alligator theme park in Southern Florida.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

In college, when my poor grades in chemistry, calculus, physics, and biology made it clear that I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor, I made a dire confession to my doctor parents: I was terribly jealous of all my friends who were taking writing and film and language classes, and I wanted to switch my major to English and see if I might study creative writing in graduate school.  They claimed to have known all along that I’d take that direction.  If only they’d told me sooner!

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Showing up for work and getting the words down, and then revising them so they seem to express the original idea more exactly.  In the case of The Invisible Bridge, that meant taking three years to write a first draft and three more years to revise it.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

In the morning I go to the little room my husband and I rent in the building next door, unload my computer and books, and get down to it.  I’ve got a bulletin board above the desk where I like to tack photos of the places I’m writing about, or of people who look like they might be characters in the book; I pace a lot, take walks, do research, return to the computer, wrestle with lines.  In general I try not to revise the earlier parts of a draft too extensively until I’ve finished the whole draft.  Before my baby was born, I was working about seven or eight hours a day, but until he gets a little older, I’ll be happy with three or four.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I’d like readers to know what happened to Hungarian Jews during the war: in other words, to feel what it might have been like to have one’s entire life—one’s aspirations, concerns, and connections—swept away in an instant, and then to have to find a way to keep living.

You can read more about Julie Orringer by visiting her website: http://www.julieorringer.com/

Spring Reviews

Monday, March 14, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBW subscribers: Your issue is in the mail.

A few sample reviews from the spring issue of Jewish Book World:

The Other I. Singer
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
It is all but required, when introducing the Yiddish writer I(srael) J(oshua) Singer, to identify him as the older brother of the Yiddish writer I(saac) B(ashevis) Singer…

Promised Lands: New Jewish American Fiction on Longing and Belonging 
Derek Rubin, ed.
Reviewed by Donald Weber

An Exclusive Love: A Memoir
Johanna Adorjan; Anthea Bell, trans.
Reviewed by Claire Rudin

The Blindness of the Heart 
Julia Franck; Anthea Bell, trans.
Reviewed by Renita Last

The Finkler Question 
Howard Jacobson
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Life on Sandpaper 
Yoram Kaniuk; Anthony Berris, trans.
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Quiet Americans
Erika Dreifus
Reviewed by Judith Felsenfeld

Visitation
Jenny Erpenbeck; Susan Bernofsky, trans.
Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

The Eichmann Trial 
Deborah E. Lipstadt
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice 
Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow
Reviewed by Jack Fischel

Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex 
Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider
Reviewed by Stephen G. Donshik

Houdini: Art and Magic 
Brooke Kamin Rapaport; Alan Brinkley, et.al., contributors.
Reviewed by Esther Nussbaum

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Austin Ratner

Monday, March 14, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next week, we’ll be posting “Words from our Finalists,” so you can get to know the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize finalists a little better.

First up…Austin Ratner

Austin…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Austin

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Rejection. It’s worse than dating.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I have always written incessantly from the time I was a child.

Who is your intended audience?

Whoever will take me.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I just finished a novel about two brothers on a roadtrip from L.A. to Cleveland in the summer of 1999.  I’m in the middle of another about a labyrinth.

What are you reading now?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

If I had to pinpoint it to one moment it would be a Monday lecture on nasopharyngeal bacteria in my last year of medical school, the day after the Cleveland Indians blew the 1997 World Series.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

Most people think of success as celebrity, but as Carrie Fisher said, celebrity is just obscurity biding its time.  I’ll be mostly satisfied if I have a modest readership in my lifetime, the respect of a few critics, and if people are still reading my books 4000 years from now and comparing me to Shakespeare.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I used to like to write in an L.L. Bean chamois shirt and I wore out the elbows and had my dry cleaner sew patches over the holes with scrap fabric from old laundry bags.  One patch was bright purple and one was orange.  One day I decided I needed to toughen myself up and I threw it out.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

A persuasive dream.

You can read more about Austin Ratner by visiting his website: http://www.austinratner.com/Site2/Home.html


Sephardim Strike Back!

Monday, March 14, 2011 | Permalink

Reyna Simnegar is the author of the recently published Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Sephardic Jews are really something to ponder. According to Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, “The Sephardic way is a paradox: to keep tradition but to stay open. The Torah is not there to put handcuffs on you. We try to find solutions. We put unity first.” I am including under Sephardic all Jews that come from Middle Eastern Countries (although these are actually Mizrahi Jews) and Jews from Spain Italy and some other countries in Europe.

I was waiting to receive Rabbi Haim Levy at Logan Airport. I have been to the airport many times to receive prominent Rabbis…but never a prominent Sephardic Rabbi. I was so excited to finally meet the author of what apparently is the book that has revolutionized Sephardic Halacha (laws) and finally brought it to the hands of the regular people like me: Anshei Chayil.

Rabbi Levy was to speak that night at my home. He runs a program called “Go Sephardic” which brings Sephardic youth to Israel and helps them increase their closeness to their rich Sephardic heritage. Rabbi Levy is very typical of the new generation of Sephardic leaders who are dynamic, energetic and motivated to “return the crown to its place” as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef says.

The more I see people like Rabbi Levy, the more I realize Sephardim are ready to “strike back.” We have been in the shadows for hundreds of years, but our glory and incredible traditions have always been thriving. I think that the world is yet to see the grandeur of our people and the treasures that will come from the descendants of the Rambam and the Ben Ish Chai, to name a few.

In my humble opinion I think Sephardim are the chilly peppers of Judaism. Our tour guide in Masada was a Sephardic man with wild curly hair and an equally hairy chest where a large star-of-David dangled. When it came time to visit the ruins of the Synagogue at Masada he managed to pull out a kippah that was “baking” flat in the back pocket of his very tight jeans. He placed proudly on his head and said, sorry I only carry one so if you need something to cover your head before you enter the sanctuary use a napkin!

I am sure many of us have stories where we see an unexpected spark of a holy neshama (soul) shine through at the moment we least expected. However, when it comes to Sephardim, even people in bathing suits reach out to kiss the mezuzah! Many Sephardim keep some semblance of kashrut and have an enormous respect for anything holy. Just like Rabbi Amsellem suggested, we are a paradox…dark people (for the most part) that shine bright!

Fried Eggplant
Chatzilim

This is one of my favorite Sephardic appetizers. However, preparing this dish also became a nightmare, because just by looking at all the oil I was using I could feel my arteries clogging! I decided to broil the eggplants instead. The secret is to use oil spray and to cut the eggplants thin enough to produce a crunchy and delicious result. Below I give you both options and you can make the choice! My Moroccan friend Michal Bessler, is the genius who taught me this recipe.

Salting the eggplant before frying will extract the excess liquid from the eggplant so that the pieces absorb less oil when fried and expel no liquid when broiled. Salting will also produce a crispier result. Please be careful and keep your children away from the sizzling oil!

2 eggplants, unpeeled, washed, and cut into slices 1/4-inch thick
5 tablespoons kosher salt
canola oil or spray
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)

Garnish Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons lime juice or the juice of 1 lime
4 cloves fresh garlic, pressed

1. Layer the eggplant slices in a large colander, sprinkling generously with kosher salt between layers. Let stand for 30 minutes.
2. Rinse the eggplants in the same colander to wash off the extra salt. Dry with paper towels.

Frying method

1. Add canola oil to one-quarter of the depth of a very large skillet. Place over medium heat until the oil sizzles when a drop of water is drizzled onto it.
2. While the oil heats, make the garnish sauce by combining all ingredients. Set aside.
3. Fry the eggplant slices in a single layer for 1 minute on each side or until slightly brown on both sides.
4. Drain on paper towels and serve with parsley as garnish, or drizzle garnish sauce on top.

Broiling method

1. Preheat the oven to broil.
2. Spray 2 cookie sheets with oil. Place the eggplant slices on the sheets in a single layer and spray with oil.
3. Broil on rack closest to the flame for 5 to 7 minutes or until the eggplant slices are slightly brown.
4. Carefully remove the cookie sheets from the oven and flip the eggplant slices with a spatula or food tongs. Spray more oil on the eggplants and return to the oven to broil for additional 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Make the garnish sauce by combining all ingredients.
6. Remove eggplants from the oven and serve with the garnish sauce and chopped parsley.

Yield: serves 4 to 6

Reyna Simnegar‘s Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love is now available. 

Gal Beckerman Accepts 2010 Jewish Book of the Year Award

Friday, March 11, 2011 | Permalink

On Wednesday, March 9th, Gal Beckerman accepted the 2010 Jewish Book of the Year Award for When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. His ceremony remarks follow:

I’m extremely humbled to have won this award. I truly can’t think of a greater honor than to receive a prize that so many giants have received before me – Amoz Oz, Michael Oren, Jonathan Sarna, Joseph Telushkin, to name just a few. On top of that, to be here on the same evening that we honor the legendary Cynthia Ozick, is just truly more than I could have ever hoped for.

The last time I can remember feeling so completely humbled had to be when I walked into Houghton Mifflin’s offices for the first time in 2004 to meet with an editor who was interested in the book.  I was 27 and very nervous and so I dressed in a suit, trying to look as serious as possible. The editor, Jane Rosenman, kind of sized me up, looking me up and down, and finally said, “You look so young. I bet the last time you wore that suit was your Bar Mitzvah.”

Hopefully I’ve made a little progress since then.

It’s actually very special for me that Cynthia Ozick should be here. I used a wonderful metaphor of hers for the book’s epigraph and it’s one I’d like to discuss a bit this evening. The line is about a shofar and it comes from a 1970 essay she wrote about the need for Jewish writers in America to draw on their own tradition for inspiration. This is what she wrote: “If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar, we will be heard far. But if we choose to be Mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wide part, we will not be heard at all; for us, America will have been in vain.”

It’s an image that also helps explain a lot about the Soviet Jewry movement and why it had such a profound affect on American Jews. To borrow her metaphor, my book is the history of this community learning for the first time just how far they could be heard if the blew out of the narrow end of the shofar.

Put another way, it’s a story of recalibration. American Jewish identity has always been a struggle between, on the one hand, a commitment to universal, humanistic, deeply-held American values and on the other, a pull towards a tribal, particularistic, Jewish identity. The movement balanced these two allegiances better than at any other moment in our history.

We learned that by blowing out of the narrow end of the shofar, we could more effectively express our hopes for humankind — that being American, fully American, did not mean subsuming the particular to the universal, but using the particular to make the universal sing. The result was not just the freedom of fellow Jews who were in need of help. Through their activism, American Jews put human rights at the center of American foreign policy – a legacy we still feel today.

The beauty of the movement – and the one element, more than any other, that led to its success and, personally, allowed it to sustain my interest all these years – was its power to bridge so many divides. This was a movement embraced as both an anti-Communist cause by those on the right and a human rights struggle for those on the left. It was a priority of Carter’s no less than of Reagan’s. A very broad swathe of people marched under the banner of the Soviet Jewry movement, a banner that I sometimes like to say was pulled taut between two poles, with Meir Kahane, the extremist right-wing rabbi who was the very paragon of Jewish tribalism gone awry, holding up one, and Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet democracy activist, holding up the other.

In February 1986 – 25 years ago last month – when Anatoly Sharansky, a fighter both for Soviet Jewry and human rights, finally walked to freedom after nine years in Soviet prisons, there was much anxiety about what his ideological orientation might be once he was in the West. His wife Avital, who had tirelessly campaigned on his behalf all those years, had become very close with the right-wing religious settler movement, Gush Emunim, and many people wondered how Sharansky would possibly reconcile this with his identity as a human rights activist. A journalist posed the question to Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s greatest poet, and he had a telling answer. “I hope they don’t ruin him,” he said. “He’s the last one who belongs to all of us.”

This was indeed a movement that belonged to all of us. But was it the last? Do Jews have anything like this today? It’s a question I get asked almost every time I talk about the book to Jewish audiences. And the truth is that I don’t think we do. Israel certainly doesn’t serve this unifying purpose. The same interests that overlapped so harmoniously on Soviet Jewry are vehemently opposed to one another when it comes to Israel. There are some Jews today who hear the words “human rights” and assume it must be some veiled threat against the Jewish state. And on the other side, there are those who see in Israel a nefarious force, enthralled only to its worst angels and incapable of acting for the good of the world.

I feel a deep sadness whenever I tried to compare the clarity of purpose that must have accompanied being a part of a cause like Soviet Jewry with the kinds of hard choices and often compromises young American Jews feel they have to navigate today when they decide to have some kind of active Jewish identity.

What I tell those people who ask me about replicating the movement is that I’m not sure its possible. There was so much about the historical context, about the particularities of the Cold War itself, which also helped account for its success. But what I can do is identify what worked without trying to prescribe how it might work again.

can say that understanding which end of the shofar to blow out of certainly was crucial – tapping into the history, culture and humanistic values of Judaism gave the community the backbone it needed to try and alter history.

But it was equally important that this movement worked towards goals that were indisputably good not just for Jews, but for all people, goals that were in the end about getting the Soviet Union to respect basic human rights. As a human right, freedom of movement is, after all, always the first step to bringing down any totalitarian society. When you can leave, you can vote with your feet.

There is reason to be hopeful in just knowing that that such a movement happened, that these disparate elements came together, that the universal and particular overlapped in this special way, and it means that the potential exists for it to happen again.

But first we have to escape from a Jewish parochialism that blinds us to the rest of the world. And at the same time, we have to abandon the unrealistic – however laudable – notion that we can be a light unto the nations. Between these two, is where I believe the potential exists: that we can achieve a good that not only helps ourselves as Jews, as members of a tribe, but that also changes humanity for the better.

If there is one big lesson then that I learned about my own people from writing this book, it is that this potential, though too often squandered, is in the end our greatest strength.

I’ve been told to avoid thank yous, which is actually a very hard thing to do on a day like today when I feel so grateful to the help and support of so many people who have believed in me and this project for so long. Suffice it to say then that to those people – and you know who you are – I could not have done this without you.

Thank you.