The ProsenPeople

Rich Cohen's Children's Book

Tuesday, March 20, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Last month we featured Rich Cohen's forthcoming (June) work, The Fish That Ate the Whale, as a book cover of the week. This month, we're excited to share news about his first children's book, Alex and the Amazing Time Machine, which will be published in May by Henry Holt. Alex and the Amazing Time Machine features Alex Trumble, "a pretty ordinary kid--except for the fact that his IQ borders on genius, and he loves to read books on vortexes and time travel." Check out an excerpt here.

Is Prayer for Activists?

Monday, March 19, 2012 | Permalink
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the founder and president of Uri L'Tzedek. He is the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Our basic premise as activists is human responsibility. We, not someone else, must step up to create change in the world. To turn to others before ourselves is for cynics and critics not change makers. What about prayer? Is it a cop out? I would suggest that prayer offers us three vital opportunities as activists: 1) Reflection and Self Awareness, 2) Reminder of Values and Recharge, and 3) Humility.

First, we know that activism can make us hot-headed, and impulses can run high. Prayer is the opportunity to check back in with our essence. Rav Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, explains: “Prayer is only correct when it arises from the idea that the soul is always praying. When many days or years have passed without serious prayer, toxic stones gather around one's heart, and one feels, because of them, a certain heaviness of spirit. When one forgets the essence of one’s own soul, when one distracts his mind from attending to the innermost content of his own personal life, everything becomes confused and uncertain. The primary role of change, which at once sheds light on the darkened zone, is for the person to return to himself, to the root of his soul” (Olat HaRa'aya, 2). Prayer reminds us that we must slow down, reflect upon our actions, and become very aware of our feelings and our spiritual integrity.

Second, prayer is a time to recharge, pausing to remind ourselves of core values and reaffirming our highest moral and spiritual commitments. Activists are consumed with opposing some of the most immoral forces on the planet. Prayer is a return to idealism, to hope, and to faith that justice will prevail. The 20th century philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin explained: “We are not physical creatures having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual creatures having a physical experience.” By connecting with our spiritual values, we can return to the material world with a broader, fresher, and more idealistic spirit.

Third, in prayer we humble ourselves. We remember that we do not control the world. We do not naively believe that we will succeed in all of our endeavors or that G-d will merely fulfill our requests. Rather, we seek a humble connection above, without expectations, as we affirm that the job of G-d is taken. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explained that G-d listens, but prayer is more about relationship and connection than wish fulfillment. “We have the assurance that God is indeed a shomeiah tefillah, One who hears our prayers, but not necessarily that He is a mekabel tefillah, One who accepts our prayers, and accedes to our specific requests. It is our persistent hope that our requests will be fulfilled, but it is not our primary motivation for prayer. In praying, we do not seek a response to a particular request as much as we desire a fellowship with God” (Reflections of the Rav, volume 1, p. 78). When we seek a relationship with the Divine, we not only humble ourselves but fill ourselves with wonder. Biologist J.B.S. Haldane said it well: “The world will not perish for want of wonders but for want of wonder.” Prayer reminds us of how small we are amongst the cosmos.

To be an activist is about taking responsibility for the injustices and oppressions in society. A spiritual life that embraces prayer is not at odds with this goal. Rather, prayer may be one of our most important tools to build community, spiritually recharge, and enhance our collective efforts to create a more just world.

You can now purchase Rav Shmuly’s book Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.

Saying New Things About Old Historical Episodes

Thursday, March 15, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Dr. Jonathan Sarna wrote about writing his most recent book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, in Jerusalem. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When I first anounced that I was writing a book about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11, the most notorious official act of anti-Semitism in American history, colleagues were skeptical. “Can there be anything new to say about the subject?” a good friend asked.

Although I pointed out that not one single book had ever been written on the topic, and that nobody had looked at it afresh in many decades, friends wondered aloud whether I was making a mistake. Wasn’t the chapter on General Orders #11 in Bertram W. Korn’s American Jewry and the Civil War, published in 1951, the accepted account of the subject? Why waste my time on an event that had already been written about before?

There were, of course, good reasons to re-examine the subject. First of all, a host of new documents had become available thanks to the publication of 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant. They shed new light both on General Orders #11 and on Grant’s subsequent relations with Jews. Second, Grant’s entire career is currently being re-examined by scholars. The image of the drunken, coarse and corrupt general and president — largely manufactured in the twentieth century by opponents of Grant’s benevolent policy toward African Americans during Reconstruction — is giving way to a new image of a fair-minded, far-sighted humanitarian, one of the finest presidents in American history. Grant’s infamous order needs to be studied anew within the context of this revisionist view of his life. Finally, previous studies of Grant and the Jews ended with Abraham Lincoln overturning General Orders #11 and declaring nobly that “to blame a class is, to say the least, to wrong the good with the bad. I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.”

Little has been written concerning the order’s aftermath: how it factored in the election of 1868 and how it affected Grant’s subsequent presidency. I suspected that this would yield an interesting and important story.

It did. In fact, much of what we once believed about U.S. Grant and the Jews turned out to be wrong. Yes, he had expelled Jews from his warzone and President Lincoln had overturned the order. Grant had identified a widespread practice -– smuggling — with a visible group, and blamed “Jews as a class” for what was in fact an inevitable by-product of wartime shortages exploited by Jews and non-Jews, civilians and military men alike. But it also turned out that after being excoriated for the order in the 1868 election campaign, Grant had publically repented of it. “I do not pretend to sustain the order,” he declared in a public statement. “I have no prejudice against sect or race, but want each individual to be judged by his own merit.”

Moreover, as president, he demonstrated his respect for Jews by appointing more of them to public office than all previous presidents combined. He also lent strong support to efforts to aid Jews facing persecution in Russia and Roumania. He even became the first president to attend a synagogue dedication and, after he left office, the first to visit the Land of Israel. When he died, in 1885, he was mourned by Jews as a hero and compared to the greatest Jew in the world at that time, Sir Moses Montefiore of England, who died the same week as Grant did.

All of this reinforced for me the value of looking anew at old episodes. Given new sources, new questions, and a broader perspective than previous scholars had, I can now confidently report that there is lots new to say about Ulysses S. Grant’s General Orders #11.

Read my book and judge for yourselves.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. His new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available.

Back to the Future and the National Jewish Book Awards

Thursday, March 15, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

1989 Max Apple and Talya Fishman meet 2012 Max Apple and Talya Fishman:

The New Yiderati: Redefining the Jewish Experience in Literature

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 | Permalink

Attention Jewish literature lovers! We're co-sponsoring an incredibly awesome (free) event in NYC with Vol. 1 Brooklyn and you don't want to miss it. (Really!) The New Yiderati: Redefining the Jewish Experience in Literature will be hosted at Housing Works (126 Crosby Street) on March 21st at 7:00PM and the event will feature:

Michelle Haimoff (These Days Are Ours), Sharon Pomerantz (Rich Boy), Joanna Smith Rakoff (A Fortunate Age), Adam Wilson (Flatscreen), Jeffery Oliver (Failure to Thrive), with moderator Jason Diamond (Flavorpill, Vol 1 Brooklyn). RSVP at Facebook.

Read reviews, find book club discussion questions, and book trailers for these titles here.

Book Cover of the Week: One Egg is a Fortune

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Miri Pomerantz Dauber and I had a wonderful meeting yesterday with the creators of the cookbook One Egg is a Fortune (Pnina Jacobson and Judy Kempler). Not only is the book simply gorgeous, but part of the proceeds will be donated to support Jewish aged care. 

‘One Egg Is A Fortune’ is a cookbook full of heart! It is a book for today from times past.

Fifty well-known Jewish figures from around the world have contributed recipes, biographies and anecdotes, showcasing the diversity of Jewish life. And while each person tells a unique story, their anecdotes reveal that the enjoyment of food is the common thread that binds us together. The title of our book was inspired by one of these beautiful stories.

This timeless book presents over 100 delicious recipes with clear, easy-to-follow instructions with stunning food photography by Craig Cranko, sophisticated food styling by Michele Cranston from Marie Claire, The New York Times and other publications, and elegant book design by award winner Melanie Feddersen from i2i Design pty ltd.

The genesis of this book began over ten years ago. Pnina and Judy met when their children were young. Standing at the bus stop seeing their children off to school, they would often talk about doing something worthwhile for the community and yet still be stay-at-home mothers, caring for their families.

As they got talking, their shared interest in food emerged, not just the meals but the memories associated with them. And so the concept of the book developed into a mingling of recipes with the warmth of nostalgia and sociological record.

At this time, Judy was a carer for her late mother-in-law Viola, and realised that so much more was needed to help our ageing community. They decided then that part of the proceeds from this book would support Jewish aged care.

Writing the Civil War in Jerusalem

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 | Permalink
Dr. Jonathan Sarna's newest book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

You are working on what?” most of the people I met in Jerusalem asked while I was writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews. Jerusalem is not where scholars generally go to write a book on the Civil War, even if it involves Jews. The majority of Israelis, in fact, know nothing about Ulysses S. Grant (one of them asked me how he felt about Israel and the Jewish settlements on the West Bank). Still, my wife and I consider Jerusalem our second home; my wife’s research can best be done in Israel’s National Library; and the Mandel Foundation offered me a senior fellowship during my sabbatical. So it was that I found myself writing When General Grant Expelled the Jews in Jerusalem, even as my thoughts centered on such Civil War sites as Holly Springs, Mississippi and Paducah, Kentucky.

Anyone who writes about Ulysses S. Grant depends upon the magnificently edited 31 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, edited by the pre-eminent Grant scholar, John Y. Simon. No complete set of those papers may be found in all of Israel. Anyone who writes about the Civil War also depends upon the 130 volumes of the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, published by the Government Printing Office. I could find no set of those records in Israel either. Once upon a time, that would have doomed my project as simply not doable in Israel. But no longer. For the Grant Papers, the Official Record of the War of the Rebellion and numerous other primary and secondary sources required for my study have in recent years all become available via the internet. A high speed connection brought them directly to my desk-top in Jerusalem. Once, when I needed unique materials from the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, they kindly scanned them for me and sent them to my inbox the next day.

In time, all of the impediments to researching the Civil War while living in Jerusalem disappeared. To me, of course, this proved a great relief. I actually managed to submit my manuscript to the publisher a few months early. At a deeper level, the experience reinforced for me how the globalization of information is democratizing knowledge by making once inaccessible materials available to anyone with an internet connection. Where one physically resides and the quality of local libraries make far less difference today than they used to.

Nowadays, as my book demonstrates, one can research even the history of General Grant’s Civil War order expelling Jews from his warzone, while living in an Israeli apartment. My Jerusalem neighbors my not have appreciated what I was studying, or why, but I feel confident that American readers will.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Chief Historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History. His new book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews, is now available.

JLit Links

Thursday, March 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Randy Susan Meyers Dishes about Tours, Writing, and Murder

Thursday, March 08, 2012 | Permalink

Today, Alicia Oltuski interviews Randy Susan Meyers, who wrote The Murderer's Daughters, about her experience touring the nation's synagogues and JCCs with Jewish Book Council...and talking about domestic violence in Jewish communities.

How and when did you first hear about the Jewish Book Council and their author tour?

When my book came out, my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent pushed me to try out for the author tour. "Don't forget, Jewish people read an enormous amount," my lovely (and Jewish) literary agent said before my book launch. "We really love books."

I’d had the good fortune of hearing authors speak at the Jewish Community Center in Greater Boston many times; I very much wanted the chance to participate as an author.

What do you think it was about your book/yourself that made the JBC audience respond to you?

My book The Murderer's Daughters is about sisters who witness their father kill their mother, and how their life unfolds for the next thirty years. Everyone seemed eager to discuss the reality of domestic violence in Jewish families — so long a forbidden topic. In addition, everyone opened up about the ways in which sisters — any siblings — respond so differently to the same family events, almost as though they’d been raised in different homes.

And, as always in great Jewish events, no matter how grim the topics, we found plenty of ways to find pockets of humor. There was plenty of laughing in my sessions, especially when I talked about publishing my first novel after the age of fifty.

What was your favorite experience on tour?

I grew up with a slight case of anomie, surrounded by a cultural belief that all-things-Jewish equals families-pushing-one-towards-great-achievement, while, among other family oddities, my grandmother taught me to shoplift. I was unclear what being Jewish meant or if I belonged.

Then I participated in the author’s tour. How to describe the feeling of walking into these fantastic Jewish community centers filled with readers eager to hear from you? I felt as though I were finally meeting every aunt, uncle, and cousin I'd ever wished for. Warmth and love was present everywhere.

What do you remember as the most thought-provoking or insightful question/comment you received from an audience member?

In Columbus, an audience member questioned what could be done to prevent domestic violence, which engendered a discussion about the importance of educating boys, as much as girls, about the importance of emotional and physical violence-free relationships. A healthy debate about the age to start teaching children about these issues provided, I believe, a forum for parents and educators to think about how to best bring these discussions to schools and their homes.

You’re working on a second book now. Did you feel that your experience on tour has, in any way, influenced your writing?

My second book, The Comfort of Lies (the story of three women connected by a child from a past infidelity), is finished and releasing in January 2013, from Atria Books. I’d already written most of the book before I was on tour.

Do you have any advice for authors about to go on book tour of any kind?
Anything you wish you’d known? Any favorite airports?

Pack light, in no more than two colors that all mix and match each other, have a pair of comfortable shoes to slip into, and always have almonds mixed with raisins in your bag. Layer, layer, layer outfits. Black dresses, colorful scarves.

Airports? When switching planes, know the route from one terminal to the next!

Funniest experience on tour?

In St. Louis, unbeknownst to us, they were trying out new onstage chairs: round, high, and with rotating cupped seats, Alyson Richman (author of The Lost Wife), Ellen Futterman (moderator of the panel, editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light) and I perched up in these seats and began twirling around.

Alyson tried to keep her dress from popping open, and I, too short for the chair, was desperate to stay facing the audience, rather than addressing the back of the stage. I guess our plight was all too apparent — within a short time they rescued us by bringing up regular chairs.

Did you find that most of the questions related to craft/writing or to thecontent/subject of your work?

Most of the questions were related to the content of my book and how my life influenced writing my novel.

Best post-reading after-party?

Past a certain hour, I am incredibly boring. The only after-partying I did was allowing myself to have room service.

Alicia Oltuski's Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life is now available.

Writers are Readers

Tuesday, March 06, 2012 | Permalink
Alicia Oltuski is the author of Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life. Alicia toured through Jewish Book Council's Jewish Book Network this past year and will be blogging here all week for JBC and MyJewishLearning.

Sometimes, standing in line for airport security toward the beginning of my book tour, I felt I knew what my ancestors experienced on Ellis Island — you know, minus the fumigations and crushing anxieties about how they would ever make it in this country. (I use the term ‘ancestors’ loosely here.) Excepting a supply of what I’d like to think of as shrewdly dispersed contact lenses, I had not packed well.

I’ve always thought of my profession as nothing like my father’s. Throughout much of mychildhood, he earned his living as a traveling diamond merchant. Last summer, though, as I began touring for my first book, Precious Objects, my job began to resemble his just a little bit more.

When I was young, my family ascribed a sense of solemnity to travel. Baggage claim was something grave and sobering. The women would step aside and wait for my father and grandfather to push through the throngs and tug at our suitcases, sometimes faltering and being pulled along the conveyer belt for one terrifying moment before they got the better of gravity and lifted the mammoth thing from the belt. I watched as they threw their weight into it, like a sport.

Our job (my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my sisters’, and mine) was to try and spot our bags, which we did by looking for black, nondescript suitcases with ribbons my grandmother had tied around the handle, as had every other traveler. Our other job (my mother’s, my sisters’ and mine) was to prevent my four-foot ten-inch grandmother from crossing the line from waiters to luggers to try and help with the heavy lifting.

I myself am actually a relaxed traveler. Having spent a few years commuting for work and school, I’m used it. And now, after more than thirty events in about twenty cities, I’m even more used it. I’m so used to it that when I had a late-night layover in a time zone different from both my departure and arrival cities, which coincided with a run of three different events in three different states, I didn’t tell everyone about it. Only the lady at the boarding counter. She clearly cared a lot.

Since that first tour stop, I’ve also managed to pick up on a host of traveling tricks—for example, that the C-line on Southwest is something like the lowest level of the Titanic. (This is actually not true; the C-line has landed me in a seat between two of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and who were more than generous vis-à-vis armrests.)

I learned that when you travel a lot your hair smells like a different flower in every city, owing to the array of hotel bath products.

I learned that after a full week of consecutive travel, I do not look like my author photo.

I learned that no one does not have an iPad.

But most importantly, I learned that everywhere, in every city, there are readers.

Passionate, enthusiastic, razor-sharp readers. I feel hugely grateful to the Jewish Book Council and to everyone who’s been having me over at their community centers, book stores, libraries, and clubs for allowing me to meet an incredible and eclectic sample of bibliophiles. This is amazingly heartening for a writer, and not just because it implies the possibility of an audience, but much more so, because writers love readers. Writers are readers.

My favorite thing to think about every time I get on a plane is that all over the country, there are millions of people who read in between job shifts, who get together to talk about books; people who can’t help themselves, people don’t want to help themselves. And I love them for it.

Alicia Oltuski's Precious Objects: A Story of Diamonds, Family, and a Way of Life is now available.