The ProsenPeople

Memories of Hillel Academy: Part I

Monday, July 12, 2010 | Permalink

Joshua Braff is the author of the novel Peep Show. He will be blogging all this week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

They say write what you know. My first novel is about a yeshiva boy who leaves his religious education to attend a public school in suburban New Jersey. I drew from my memories of a building in Perth Amboy called Hillel Academy, a place that was so ill-prepared to teach that it was torn down a few years after I left. In fairness, it was the seventies, and information on children and how to raise and teach them was not as ubiquitous as it is today. The “How To” book world would need another decade to even begin to school us on the craft of respecting children, our spouses, our neighbors.

But alas, it is important to recall the positive aspects of all periods of life, be they hard to come by or not. I used to love this teacher from Hillel named Rabbi Laloosh. The guy was probably 6 foot 11, wore orthopedic shoes and only said about six words in English. But he knew just what we yeshiva kids needed. He would position himself in the center of the entire student body just before we were dismissed for the weekend and, during a song I forget the name of, let all three hundred of us scream OO-FARR-ATZ-TA!!! into his ears. I never learned what the word meant, but it had to be the most cathartic primal scream any of us had ever had. Even as a second grader I had the feeling Rabbi Laloosh knew our school life sort of bit the big one. He was letting us vent as the Sabbath approached, and I always admired him for it.

It took thirty plus years for me to understand why my early education left with me such skewed memories of religion. Aside from the much-taught melancholy associated with Jewish history like the Holocaust, the slavery in Egypt and some of the human calamities in the Old Testament, I always had an innate disinterest in the “push” to adhere to the suggestion that I was merely a soldier amongst many in the plight that is Zionism. To me this meant I was merely one, under God, a thistle in a forest of survivors who were forced to overcome more adversity and human loss than any culture on earth. I was thusly obliged to be a part of a larger sum as opposed to an entity unto myself in which life is dictated by both the unfolding of our individual days here, and the way one’s predisposed brain takes flight in a world fraught with possibility.

But I’ll tell you some of my most positive yeshiva memories.

My first thought of kissing a girl was in the back of Hillel Academy. At the time it held a small blacktop that offered a kick ball sized space surrounded by a chain link fence. I think of this square as the place I learned to lust for the smell of Wendy Friedberg. She was the older, fifth grade girl who preferred kissing one’s lips to slapping one’s back in “You’re it” the yeshiva version of “tag.” I would chase her cloud of pheromones around this tiny area with the ferocity of a Wild Kingdom clip, until my fingertips brushed against her ruffled shoulder.

“You’re it!” I yelled, and our eyes met amidst the haze of baking tarmac. “You’re it, Wendy Friedberg.”

You’re it, and I’m the one who made you so. I remember the pressure to kiss her. All the kids watching, egging me on, kiss her, kiss Wendy, and I knew that the only thing before me, before Talmud class, Abraham and Isaac and the Hebrew alphabet, I‘d need to place my lips against Wendy Friedberg’s cheek. But I was hesitant. Scared? Embarrassed? My teacher Mora Mirium would call us, Time’s up, recess is over.

I chickened out. She was older, okay? A fifth grader. She was just too sensual and sweaty, running around that blacktop like a gazelle and all. Her family would later visit our new house in South Orange for Shabbat because Wendy’s brother was my brother’s buddy. There was a song we sang at the end of our ceremony that required we all hold hands. I was next to Wendy and I remember pretending that I had to reach for the person to my left so hard that I couldn’t very well also take her grip. My dad called me out, “Take her hand, Joshua.”

I felt Wendy’s fingers against mine but didn’t face her for the entire song. She truly was a confusing and complicated woman. And I never would have known her without Hillel Academy.

Joshua Braff’s second novel, Peep Show, is now available. 

Fiction and Museums

Friday, July 02, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Allegra Goodman wrote about being a world artist and writing “Jewish” fiction. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

Some people do their best thinking in the shower. I do some of my best thinking in museums. I feel at peace surrounded by paintings. In libraries or book stores I can’t help but read like a writer. I can’t prevent the what ifs and the oh but I’d do that differently response. In a museum I’m an enthusiast. Since I’m not a visual artist, I’m more easily dazzled.

Last year I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts with two friends, a painter and an art historian. (It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar…) The three of us had a lively discussion of the merits of various paintings in the Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto exhibition.

“Look at that brushwork,” said the painter as we gazed at one portrait.

“But there are issues with the larger composition,” said the art historian.

I startled them with my own criterion for a good portrait. “It works if the eyes follow you as you cross the room.”

Wandering through galleries takes me away from the page and into a world of color. I like to think about the problems and possibilities of visual representation: the way Van Gogh uses the color green. The way Degas reveals the weight and clumsiness of ballet dancers even as they aspire to grace. The way Auerbach builds up layers of paint on his canvases so that his studies become palimpsests and also excavations. When I look at paintings I think about the way artists capture the world and how they develop character. I also think about economy in art. Writers and painters have this in common: the right detail can tell a whole story. Think of the eyes in Rembrandt’s self portraits: insouciant in the early paintings and then so dark, weary and knowing later on. Consider Ralph’s dying words to Isabel in Portrait of a LadyVelasquez’s Venus and the turn of her neck. William Carlos Williams’ celebration of smallness and specificity: “so much depends / upon / a red wheel /barrow.” God is in the details, and the artist’s hand in every line.

Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is available for pre-order. Find her on Facebook and her website.

World Artists

Wednesday, June 30, 2010 | Permalink

On Monday, Allegra Goodman wrote about writing “Jewish” fiction. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Albert Einstein famously declared himself a citizen of the world. As an artist I’d like to do the same. That doesn’t mean masking the particulars of my experience or my heritage—it means communicating them more broadly. The artists I admire most are world artists. They thrive on this sort of communication. Let me give you some examples.

Composer Osvaldo Golijov is a Jew who grew up in Argentina, studied in Israel and settled in the United States. His work layers South American rhythms, klezmer riffs, sacred chant, classical and popular genres. You can hear a cantorial wail in the clarinet part of “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” and you can hear kaddish in his “Pasion segun san Marcos” along with a rocking Venezuelan choir, drumming, rigorous fugue and carnival. Golijov weaves all these threads together to create a new music greater than the sum of its parts.

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan but works in England. His diverse work includes Remains of the Day, a novel about an English butler on the eve of World War II, and Never Let Me Go, a dystopian novel about a group of children schooled to sacrifice themselves for society. His fiction is both English and Japanese, treating themes of conformity, self-sacrifice, the ideal of honor, and the price of reticence.

My colleague at Boston University, Ha Jin, is a Chinese poet and novelist writing in English. He has not visited China in many years, and he has not lived in America for very long, but he uses this to his advantage, writing about both China and America from an outsider’s perspective. Ha Jin turns the experience of the stranger in a strange land into a central motif in A Free Life. His work is a profound meditation on defamiliarization—moving from one language to another, from one culture to another. From country to city in Waiting, from immigration to naturalization in A Free Life. Worlds conquer worlds. Individuals discover the possibilities and the costs of reinvention.

All of these artists use cultural difference as a medium. They layer specific themes and idioms with tremendous subtlety and confidence. It’s not a new way to work, but it seems to me an exciting way. Begin with what you are. Use what you know, and your art will speak to more people. As James Joyce wrote in Switzerland many years ago: “For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.”

Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is available for pre-order. Find her on Facebook and her website.

Writing “Jewish” Fiction

Monday, June 28, 2010 | Permalink

Allegra Goodman is the author. Her new novel, The Cookbook Collector, will be released next week. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s author blog series.

Jewish literature means different things to different people. It can mean writing by a Jewish author, writing about Jewish culture, writing about Jews, or writing about Judaism as a religion.

I don’t always write about Jewish people, but I am always a Jewish author. I don’t always treat Judaism either as culture or as religion, but sometimes I do—notably in my first novel, Kaaterskill Falls (1998), which is about a community of Orthodox Jews who summer in upstate New York.

When Kaaterskill Falls came out, some readers assumed that my own religious beliefs paralleled those of the protagonist, the pious and imaginative Elizabeth Shulman. This was flattering to me, because I loved the character. However, I am her author, not her sister. I did not infuse Elizabeth with my own hopes and fears, nor did I share her history. Readers asked: What is it like to write about your religious beliefs? Again, I was flattered by the question. I was creating a character with her own religious beliefs.

People assume that writing is self expression, and to some extent they are right. The tricky part is that fiction writers express themselves by displacing their experiences, transposing their beliefs, coding their feelings. A novel is closer to dream than memoir. Therefore, while my work is deeply personal, it is not autobiographical. That’s what makes my job so satisfying. I am not Elizabeth Shulman, the Orthodox mother of five, any more than I’m Sharon Spiegelman, the bohemian seeker in my second novel, Paradise Park (2001).

Indeed, I think of those novels as part of a larger project—a kind of “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” in which I explore the spiritual lives of two very different Jewish women in America. Elizabeth lives a highly structured life, and longs for autonomy. Sharon lives in a wilderness of choice, and longs for structure and guidance. My relationship to these characters? I’m both and neither.

As an artist I take religion as a rich subject. I’m fascinated by belief, by ritual, by the way that people define themselves and search for meaning. Religion is but one of my subjects, however.

My third novel, Intuition (2006), is about a group of cancer researchers. None is particularly religious. The Jews among them are quite assimilated. This is a novel about belief and doubt, about trust, about generational tension, about ritual and tradition—but I write of belief and doubt as powerful forces in scientific investigation, about trust within an intellectual community, about generational tension, ritual and tradition inside a laboratory. Intuition is a book about science and also a book about the soul.

My new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is a novel about identity, particularly buried Jewish identity. It is also a novel about technology and its discontents. It’s a book about the longing
for authenticity in a virtual world, about trust and betrayal and the need to connect. Most
striking, The Cookbook Collector is about the displacement of desire.

I’m fascinated by the way we read cookbooks instead of cooking, collect material things instead of living, pursue fame and fortune instead of loving. I ask — what happens when we wake up? What happens when we declare, as Orlando does in As You Like It— “I can live no longer by thinking”? This is a human question. In the end, dreams and thoughts can’t substitute for real life. It’s a modern question. Our virtual connections and our cyber world can’t substitute for face to face conversation. And it’s a Jewish question. Jews are often tagged “the people of the book,” but Judaism is a religion in which actions speak louder than words. For me, writing Jewish fiction means enjoying these multiple valences.

I don’t see “Jewish-American” or “Jewish woman” or “Jewish artist” as either/or propositions. Nor do I view Judaism narrowly as culture or religion or ethnicity. As an artist I think of Judaism as an additive rather than exclusive quality. Perhaps you can tell from this that I am the daughter of a Jewish philosopher!

Allegra Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is available for pre-order. Find her on Facebook and her website, and come back all week to read her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The Forward Visits the Network Conference

Friday, June 25, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Ever wonder what happens at the Jewish Book Network conference each May? Well, lucky for you, the Forward visited the conference this year and posted a video that catches a glimpse of author “tryouts”:

Read the full article, “Just Two Minutes To Tell Your Story”, in the Forward here.

Beautiful Synagogue Photography

Friday, June 25, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Laszlo Regos, a photographer based in Michigan, recently sent us a beautiful book he published on the Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest. The book was published last September by the Hungarian publisher Alexandra in order to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the synagogue. You can purchase the book of photography from his website here.

Recently, Regos took a little time to photograph American synagogues for his newest project, a calendar featuring important synagogues in the U.S. The calendar is featured on his website here and view below to see a preview of the images from the calendar, as well as a preview of his book of photography on the Dohány Street Synagogue.

Oh Canada!

Thursday, June 24, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 34th Annual Jewish Book Fair in Toronto, Ontario will take place October 23rd to 31st.

This is one of the largest book fairs in North America, boasting over 5,000 visitors each year, and features sales of a wide range of books of Jewish interest, over 25 international and Canadian authors, film screenings, panel discussions, musical events, workshops, and children’s events. The Jewish Book Fair is presented by the Koffler Centre of the Arts.

This year’s headliners include David Grossman (To the End of the Land), Anna Porter (Kasztner’s Train), and Tarek Fatah (The Jew is Not My Enemy). Full event details and a list of participating authors will be posted soon at

Israeli Flash Fiction Reviewed on Words Without Borders

Thursday, June 24, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Israel novelist and short-story writer Alex Epstein’s flash fiction collection, Blue Has No South, is reviewed by Jonathan Blitzer for Words Without Borders here.

Also check out Alex’s recent conversation with Words Without Borders below:

A Conversation with Alex Epstein from Words without Borders on Vimeo.

Sisters, or Double Chai

Wednesday, June 23, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBC friend, author, and blogger, Erika Dreifus writes poetry for the New Vilna Review here.

Roundup Roundup

Friday, June 18, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week’s installment of The Weekly Yiderati from, including alternative authors for the 20 under 40 list and Bloomsday madness.

The Association of Jewish Libraries compiles a great list of Jewish literary links from around the web, including a Q&A with Miryam Kabakov and a review of the new online YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe.