The ProsenPeople

Darin Strauss on Faith

Monday, August 22, 2011 | Permalink

Darin Strauss’s most recent book, Half a Life: A Memoir, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Faith is a private issue. At least, I consider it to be one. (Try telling that to Tea Party evangelicals, though…) I consider myself a Jewish writer—even if my characters frequently are not Jewish—in the same way, I guess, that I consider myself a Jewish man, even though I don’t often attend shul.

In another post I’ll talk about my books (particularly Chang & Enga novel about the famous and Asian conjoined twins, and Half a Lifemy non-fiction book about me). Here, today, I want to discuss faith.

I felt sheepish this week when I admitted to someone that I pray each night. My prayer is improvised—though like some standard jazz performance, the improv happens within pretty strict parameters—and asks for nothing. It wasn’t always this way.

prayed every night for as long as I can remember—at least since my Israel bar-mitzvah some 27 years ago. But until recently I would ask G-d  for favors. Nothing extravagant, nor even of a material nature. But my prayer was a homemade mix of thanks and request. I didn’t use a standard, Jewish prayer-book prayer because 1) I don’t speak Hebrew, and 2) it seems to me that if one doesn’t know the meaning of what one is saying, that ignorance is an impenetrable barrier between oneself and G-d. Now, I could’ve learned Hebrew, sure. But it seemed (and I’ll admit this may have been my laziness) that talking to G-d directly was a better way of expressing my own personal feelings of belief and appeal and doubt and gratitude.

But recently, as my own comprehension of my faith increased, I realized there was much I didn’t believe. Or, not that I didn’t believe, exactly, but that I had serious doubts about a few things. For example, it struck me as unlikely that G-d involves Himself with the daily minutiae of every single life on the planet. That an omnipotent creator of life would find himself shackled with that duty seemed improbable—it struck me as beneath Him. Also, how to explain the conflicting nature of some prayers? E.g., What to do when a million people pray for one thing, and another million its opposite? And what about not only the Holocaust, but every year’s untold tsunami and earthquake victims? Hadn’t they prayed? And sick children—etc.

All the same, I believe in G-d, and also that Judaism is closest to what my conception of G-d is—not to mention I have a steep cultural attachment to this religion and her people. And so I decided to keep on praying, but just not to ask G-d for anything. The thing is, I truly am profoundly thankful to G-d for all the blessings I have received in my life, beginning with the gift of Life itself. Now, whether my not asking for good things to happen to me is subconsciously intended to win me brownie points with G-d is something I can’t answer. But I do feel the need to give thanks, and also not to feel hypocritical by asking for things when I have doubts that G-d would answer me.

That is not to say I haven’t broken my little rule; that I haven’t taken up the mantle of hypocrisy now and again. But I do so for my 3-year-old son. (He has been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I have prayed, and will continue to pray, for his health and comfort.) It seems to me a little hypocrisy in the service of fatherhood may get a bit of a divine pass.  But who knows.

This homemade ritual feels right for me; I’m not saying anyone else should embrace it.  I hope others would give me the same wide faith devotional birth.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy. He will be blogging here all week.

The History of People

Friday, August 19, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Douglas Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team ever and about researching Jewish sports. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

To me, history is telling stories about people. I have always been fascinated by people’s lives, the decisions they make (or don’t), and ultimately what happens to them. One of my objectives in writing The SPHAS was to have an opportunity to tell the stories of the players and, in some cases, the fans who attended the games. Who were the SPHAS? Where did they come from? Why were they attracted to basketball? Who were they as people?

As I crafted the book, I decided that I would try and tell the story of each season through one or two players. This allowed me to combine the stories of the players with the game-by-game story and drama of each season. It also proved a fairly easy way to organize the book.

One of the challenges of writing a book about a defunct basketball team whose heyday was in the 1930s and early 1940s was that most of the players had either passed away or were very old. I had two paths to take. One was to interview family members of the players from the 1930s. The second was to speak with players who played in the 1940s. Both proved invaluable.

The family members of the 1930s players were able to provide  information about who the players were as people and about their childhoods. But in many instances, they were unable to talk about the playing days. Some were too young to remember. Some maybe never asked. However, many of them had scrapbooks of articles and these proved to be a tremendous source of information. Athletes from a certain generation actively kept scrapbooks chronicling their careers. The articles, programs, and ticket stubs contain valuable information. Athletes today do not seem to have the same desire in maintaining scrapbooks.

I was also able to interview quite a few players from the 1940s, and, although they might forget some information, they all loved talking about their playing days. Their faces light up and they can recall a game 70 years ago better than what they had for dinner last week. As they talked, they were young again, playing basketball, traveling 5 or 6 in a car from one town to another, and growing the game.

They all had interesting stories to tell and seemed grateful that someone today wanted to hear their stories. It was my honor to tell their stories and I hope that I did it well.

Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available.

Celeb Central

Friday, August 19, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It’s celeb central over here at the little JBC office! Last week we had a visit from “Fran Drescher” . . . today “Lisa Loeb” popped in (yep, she’s Jewish):

Bring Lisa Loeb into your home on October 4th.

And, in the meantime:

Irena Sendler Reading List

Thursday, August 18, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Irena Sendler is one of the “Other Schindlers.”  During World War II she helped create over 3,000 false documents to help Jewish families and joined the  Żegota resistance (Council to Aid Jews) as head of their children’s section.  In this capacity, she smuggled children and babies out of ghettos and buried lists of the hidden children in jars in order to keep track of them. Sendler is recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, has received numerous awards for her courageous efforts (including Poland’s highest civilian decoration), and there have been efforts to nominate her for the Nobel Prize.

Want to learn more about Sendler? Check out these great resources:

Life in a Jar: The Irena Sendler Project, Jack Mayer (March 2011)

Irena Sendler: Mother of the Children of the Holocaust, Anna Mieszkowska (November 2010)

Irena Sendler and the Children of the Warsaw Ghetto, Susan Goldman Rubin (April 2011)

The Other Schindler… Irena Sendler: Savior of the Holocaust Children, Abhijit Thite and Priya Gokhale (March 2010)

JBC Bookshelf: Fall Fiction

Thursday, August 18, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

While you can probably only snag a few of these before Labor Day (Sweet Like SugarThe Book of LifeThe Emperor of Lies), the rest should keep you busy through the fall (non-fiction version to follow next week).  For you fast readers, we’ll post more fiction lists throughout the season. Are you a book programmer interested in bringing in any of these  authors to your community? If so, all of the below authors, except Amos Oz and Ned  Beauman, are touring through the Jewish Book Network. For more details, email:

The Emperor of Lies, Steve Sem-Sandberg; Sarah Death, trans. (September 2011, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Fiction surrounding the life of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Judenrat leader of the Łódź ghetto.

The Book of Life, Stuart Nadler (September 2011, Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books)
Debut story collection alert!

Sweet Like Sugar, Wayne Hoffman (September 2011, Kensington)
Check back the week of August 29th for Hoffman’s posts on the JBC/MJL Author Blog series.

Boxer, Beetle, Ned Beauman (September 2011, Bloomsbury USA)
Check back the week of October 3rd for Beauman’s posts on the JBC/MJL Author Blog series.

The List, Martin Fletcher (October 2011, Thomas Dunne Books)
Fletcher won the 2010 National Jewish Book Award in Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice for Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation.

Scenes from Village Life, Amos Oz; Nicholas de Lange, trans. (October 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Did you know that Amos Oz’s children’s book, Suddenly in the Depths of the Forest, was also published this year?

JLit Links

Thursday, August 18, 2011 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Researching Jewish Sports

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Douglas Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team everHis new book, The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available.

Writing a book about a Jewish basketball team that had not played a meaningful game in nearly seventy years posed some challenges. The Philadelphia SPHAS were a great basketball team, but by the end of World War II, their best days were behind them. They were no longer significant players in the basketball world. So, I asked myself some questions. How do you find information about a team that no longer exists? Are any of the players still alive? Does anyone still remember them?

As I began working on this book, I realized that I needed to assemble a research plan. I figured newspapers would be a good start. Philadelphia had several papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Record and I felt both would be helpful. But I wanted to see what was written in the cities of their opponents. How was the team covered on the road? What was press coverage like in opposing cities? I then began tracking down newspapers in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington and many cities in the Midwest where they traveled. In addition to the mainstream press, I also targeted the Jewish press to see if the team was covered.

Over the course of several years, I spent many long and lonely hours in front of microfilm machines finding articles and scores. Unfortunately, none of the newspapers I needed were digitized, so I was manually cranking the microfilm reader.

Throughout the course of using the newspapers I learned a few things. The SPHAS and professional basketball were covered by the mainstream press. Some cities did it better than others, but basketball was covered. At that time, basketball was not the most predominant sport but it did receive coverage.

Philadelphia newspapers covered the SPHAS extremely well. That was partially due to team manager Eddie Gottlieb and his relationship with the newspapers and local reporters. When the SPHAS played at home, the Philadelphia newspapers gave ample coverage, often with a good-size article and the box score. When the SPHAS played on the road, the wire service would provide a brief write-up, maybe a few paragraphs. A box score was usually included.

Unlike today, however, the articles had no quotes. They were simply write-ups of the games. They were extremely descriptive, and in some cases would go play-by-play or point-by-point. The writing style was different and reporters embellished the action and gave you a sense of what was happening. The lack of quotes did not give any first-hand accounts of the games and drama unfolding.

I also learned that the Jewish press did not cover basketball too much. Baseball with Hank Greenbergboxing with Barney Ross, and basketball with Nat Holman received the only sports press. Surprisingly,the SPHAS were not covered by Jewish newspapers.

Despite some of the challenges and omissions, the newspapers proved to be a great source of information about the SPHAS and professional basketball during the 1920s to 1940s.

Check back all week to read more posts by Douglas Stark for the Jewish Book Council and  MyJewishLearning.

n+1+Yitzhak Laor

Wednesday, August 17, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

n+1 readers, you’re in for a treat. If you haven’t already perused the latest issue (out this week), be sure to flip to page 129, where you’ll find six poems by  Israeli poet and activist Yitzhak Laor. For those who can’t read the poems in Hebrew, there is a handy English translation for each by Joshua Cohen (who, I should note, is mentioned in the editorial of our upcoming issue of Jewish Book World–due out in September).

Here’s a brief introduction to Yitzhak Laor from n+1:

Yitzhak Laor was born the same year as Israel, 1948. He has written stories, novels, plays, essays, and journalism, while his poetry has been recognized as among the best if most controversial of his generation. In 1972, Laor became one of the first Israeli Defense Forces soldiers to refuse to complete his compulsory military service in the territories captured during the Six-Day War, a decision that earned him a brief prison sentence. Today Laor lives in Tel Aviv, where he edits the magazine Mitaam. Like most poets in Hebrew, Laor frequently resorts to the language of Scripture, although he uses it to address a political situation—Jews as conquerors—that hasn’t existed since Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel wrote their last lines.

Find the opening to “Take Care, Soldier”, the first of six poems, here, subscribe to the magazine here, and find out about the Issue 12 Launch Party here.

JBC’s Annual “Raid the Shelves” Night

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | Permalink

When was the last time you got something for FREE in this economy (not counting the meal your mom paid for when she last came over to visit)?? Well, the Jewish Book Council, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting books of Jewish interest, wants to give you free books. A lot of free books, actually– as in, bring an extra bag!

On Thursday, September 15th, the JBC will open its doors to any and all young Jews in their 20s and 30s, and offer all of its leftover books to those quick enough to grab them. Sift through hundreds of great Jewish books, and help yourself to an armload (or two) of the best Jewish literature in town!

Go Green - Please bring your own bags.

There is a five-book limit until 8 pm, and a ten-book limit from 8-8:30 pm.

Thursday, September 15, 2011, 6 PM through 8:30 PM

Jewish Book Council
520 Eighth Ave. (between 36th & 37th), 4th Fl.
New York, NY

This event is free, but, due to space limitations and security procedures, all attendees must register in advance. 

**Registration has now closed.

Book Cover of the Week: Elmo’s Little Dreidel

Tuesday, August 16, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Heart! Available this September