The ProsenPeople

Home in the Morning: September Twitter Book Club

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Permalink

A powerful debut from a new literary talent, this novel tells the story of a Jewish family confronting the tumult of the 1960s—and the secrets that bind its members together.

Jackson Sassaport is a man who often finds himself in the middle. Whether torn between Stella, his beloved and opinionated Yankee wife, and Katherine Marie, the African American girl who first stole his teenage heart; or between standing up for his beliefs and acquiescing to his prominent Jewish family’s imperative to not stand out in the segregated South, Jackson learns to balance the secrets and deceptions of those around him. But one fateful night in 1960 will make the man in the middle reconsider his obligations to propriety and family, and will start a chain of events that will change his life and the lives of those around him forever.

Join the Jewish Book Council and author Mary Glickman to discuss Home in the Morning on Wednesday, September 14th, from 12:30 pm- 1:10 pm EST. Learn more about Mary before book club by checking out the video below!

**Congratulations go out to @robinec for winning the first of our Book Club Giveaways on 8/24! She’ll receive a free copy of Home in the Morning to read before book club!

The How-To, In Case You’re New:

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

To participate…

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

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

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

Contending with Catastrophe

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by William Sudry

As the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks approaches, the scars left by that tragedy linger and continue to remind. Americans of every stripe will come together next month to grieve and to reflect.

These events force us to revisit some of the big questions – what to do in the face of paralyzing catastrophe? how to think about deepest evil? – that demand a response.

A forthcoming volume marks the 9/11 decennial and confronts these matters head-on: Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, edited by Michael J. Broyde (Beth Din of America Press and K’hal Publishing).

Contending with Catastrophe is divided into two parts, bringing two aspects of Jewish tradition, the practical and the intellectual, to bear on the events and their aftermath. The first section reproduces a sampling of never-before-seen documents and discusses problems of Jewish law raised by the attacks, presenting the reality of a working religious legal system dealing with pressing issues. The second section is a collection of reflective essays on Jewish ethics and theology by leading Orthodox Jewish rabbis and lay leaders from the United States and Israel.

The book concludes by introducing prayers for the recovery and recognition of the emergency workers at Ground Zero and in memory of the victims of the attacks, both composed for this volume. A prayer for the safety of the United States Armed Forces stationed around the world is also included.

Contending with Catastrophe: Jewish Perspectives on September 11th, due out this month, can be pre-ordered here. (For free shipping and a 10% pre-publication discount, use the code AFK10 at checkout.)

Book Cover of the Week: Yiddishkeit

Wednesday, August 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Loving the orange, black, and beige combo on this one…

Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land will be available September 1st from Abrams ComicArts

Exciting arrival

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Guess who showed up at our office today?

Ha, we wish.

Not Fran Drescher.

But the next best thing: Wendy!

Being Wendy, Fran Drescher’s new book for kids, is completely adorable and beautifully designed. It comes out in November.

JBC Bookshelf: Fall Travel

Tuesday, August 09, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This fall, travel through history with literature: Vivian Gornick presents a portrait of an early 20th century radical icon; Umberto Eco brings us back to the conspiracies of the 19th century; and Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman allows readers to listen in on the Jewish conversation as it has expanded–from the Hebrew Bible to the early 21st century.

Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, Vivian Gornick (October 2011, Yale University Press)
A few topics that struck Emma Goldman’s fancy in 1910: anarchism, free love, birth control, women’s rights, homosexuality.

The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco; Richard Dixon, trans. (November 2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Eco’s highly anticipated novel set in nineteenth-century Europe. “From the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Europe is in tumult and everyone need’s a scapegoat. But what if, behind all of these conspiracies, both real and imagined, lay one lone man?”

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman (November 2011, BlueBridge)
One hundred great Jewish books including biography, spirituality, poetry, fiction, history, and political theory.


Jews and Chinese Food

Monday, August 08, 2011 | Permalink

Michael Levy is the author of Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.

My therapist once told me a joke: “Chinese culture is old, perhaps 4000 years. But Jewish culture is 1000 years older! The only question is: how did we survive for 1000 years without Chinese food?

He’s a great therapist, but a lousy comedian. Nevertheless, our interaction—like a Chinese box—was layered. We were knee-deep in stereotypes, each containing a grain of truth. Jews are either stand-up comedians or failed stand-up comedians. Jews are either in therapy, therapists themselves, or both. Jews love Chinese food.

I fit all these stereotypes. The last one is particularly true, in large part because I lived in China for three years, serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guizhou Province (drop a finger on the dead-center of China, and you’ll likely hit this remote location).

It was a surreal experience. I was one of the only foreigners my students had ever seen, and they reacted to me the way I would react to Chewbacca walking into a classroom. I was stared at. I was feared. I was recruited to play on a university basketball team (the only Jew to ever truly earn the nickname Shaq). I was told I must play Santa Claus in a Walmart.

When things settled down and I was a bit more integrated into the community, I got down to my actual job. I taught grammar and vocabulary to hundreds of kids from tiny farming villages. They, in turn, taught me how to eat everything from millipede to chicken talon. . . and beyond.

Unlike David Sedaris—possibly the worst traveller on earth—I fell in love with the food in China. Notice I did not write “Chinese food.” This is deliberate. “Chinese food” is what I eat every Christmas Eve in America. It is lo mein, wonton soup, and moo shu. It is General Tsao. “Food in China” is not remotely like this. Not remotely.

I love food in China. I also love Chinese food. I also try to keep kosher. Can these three statements co-exist? Over the next week, I will be blogging about my attempt to find the restaurant in New York that best fits all three criteria. As Karl Marx—the most beloved Jew in all of China— once wrote, “Working people of the world unite and find good Kosher Chinese food!”

Check back all week for more posts from Michael Levy, author of the recently published Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion.

Our Good Friends the Essermans

Friday, August 05, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Melissa Fay Greene wrote about the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia, and telling jokes at church. Her new book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, is now available. 

My husband and I are white people. We shop at R.E.I. for the clothes. We have cousins on both sides who are vegans and have attended more than one bean-filled wedding reception. We could move to Dubuque, Iowa, or Bangor, Maine, if we wanted to, without anyone wondering what on earth we were thinking. If pulled over by a traffic cop for a moving violation, we await him at our driver’s side window with the wide-eyed innocent-looking expectation that the exchange will proceed cordially and without undue suspicion. We are well-acquainted with the many bonuses of what is known on the street as White Skin Privilege.

We were born just this side of the mid-20th-century, to Jewish parents, when ethnicity was on the verge of being accepted as an acceptable American lifestyle. Jerry Lewis, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, Danny Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr., were major Jews of our childhood. We weren’t told about the Holocaust.

In 1980, my husband Don Samuel and I, newlyweds, moved to Rome, a northwest Georgia hill-town that hadn’t gotten the news yet that ethnic people were just regular folks. “Where y’all from?” everyone asked us.  Our new neighbors asked us, the landlord asked us, the Big Boy’s waitress asked us, the filling station man asked us. The people down the street whose car had a bumper sticker reading, “Oil Yes, Jews No,” did not ask us.

We’d moved to Rome, Georgia, from Athens, Georgia, after Donny graduated from the UGA School of Law, but our Rome questioners — “Where y’all from?” — felt perplexed rather than satisfied when we replied, “Athens.”  “Athens?” said the Big Boy’s waitress, squinting at us. “Y’all Greeks?”

A variation on “Where y’all from?” was offered by citizens who had once accidentally seen a Woody Allen movie. Those people knowingly asked, “Y’all from New York?”  It made us not want to confess that Donny was from New York.

No matter how we hedged, saying we were from Athens, mentioning that I was born in Macon and that Donny used to work in Brunswick and that we’d gotten married in Savannah, everyone had a sure-fire follow-up question.  “Well, what church do y’all go to?”

Then we had to say it:  “We’re Jewish.”

“Yeah,” they said. Then everyone — everyone — everyone asked the same thing: “Do y’all know the Essermans?”  The mailman asked, the waitress asked, the Dunkin Doughnuts guy asked, the roofer asked.

We had moved to Rome the previous Thursday; no, we hadn’t met the Essermans yet.

A few years earlier, when researching my first book, Praying for Sheetrock, on the wooded Georgia coast, I’d fallen prey to similar interrogations. The rural black people of McIntosh County accurately sensed that, for obscure reasons, I was not part of the local white power structure, and they accepted that. They welcomed me warmly. The local white people, however, with similar intuition, wondered what I was hiding. In the middle of a an interview with the city attorney, the ruddy big-faced man interrupted me, leaned forward across his kitchen table, and asked, “Melissa?  Do you know Morley Safer?”

“Morley Safer?”

“Morley Safer.”

“The anchor on the TV program, 60 Minutes?”

“That’s the fella. You know him?”

“No, I don’t know him.”

“Unh hunh,” he said skeptically.

I had no idea what he was driving at. We pushed on.  A few minutes later he interrupted me again, leaned forward even more confidingly, and probed:  “Melissa, do you know Jesus?”

Now I saw where we were headed. “No, I don’t know Jesus,” I said, “and I don’t know Morley Safer either.”

Now, in Rome, it was the Essermans everyone asked about. But it turned out that asking Jews if they knew the Essermans made a lot more sense than asking them if they knew Morley Safer or Jesus.  The Essermans had immigrated from Latvia in the late 19th century, joining an already-thriving antebellum Rome Jewish Community. Two Esserman brothers opened Esserman’s Department Store on Broad Street in 1896, where it would last for most of a century: a beautiful clothing store with perfume displays and jewelry counters, a children’s department, men’s wear, ladies’ wear, and formal wear, without which the local citizenry might have dressed themselves in overalls made out of feed sacks or, worse, plaid country-club slacks. An Esserman cousin, Joseph Esserman, opened the Lad & Lassie children’s clothing store. The Essermans, short solid people with smooth round heads and thick enthusiastic eyebrows, instantly embraced Donny and me as landsmen, gave us the family discount at the store, included us in the weekly card games attended by other Essermans, and gave us gifts of large oil paintings of Eastern European village scenes created by the living patriarch, Hyman Esserman. We spent most of our two years in Rome, Georgia, hanging out with people forty and fifty years our senior. Because they were Jews.

We immediately joined Rodeph Shalom, a congregation founded in 1875 (its first rabbi had been an Esserman). The handsome hilltop brick synagogue with white pillars had been built in 1937. Until 1955, the temple had had a fulltime rabbi. Now a Reform student rabbi flew to town twice a month from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati to lead Shabbat services. She stayed in a motel owned by a couple from India who referred to her as the Rib-Eye. There were about 30 Jews in Rome when we lived there, and a sprinkling of non-Jewish spouses. Several curious local people attended services, too. The moment Donny and I walked into the building for the first time, the entire congregation turned around and breathed, as one: “YOUNG people!” Within the week, Donny was on the board and I was president of Sisterhood. After our very first Friday night service, we invited our newest friends, Oscar and Ruth Borochoff, to come home with us for a piece of cake. I guess they were in their seventies. The moment they entered our house, Mrs. Borochoff stepped into our tiny kitchen, put on an apron, and insisted on washing the dinner dishes still soaking in the sink. I had to drag her in embarrassment into the living room. These were the nicest people in the world.

When these coiffed, belted, perfumed ladies showed up at my house for the first Sisterhood meeting of my presidency, I, age 27, suggested that we become a branch of Amnesty International. They liked the idea very much. On our second meeting, I handed out literature about the iron-fisted military dictatorship of President Augusto Pinochet of Chile. Then we all wrote letters on behalf of Chilean political prisoners. The ladies wrote with flowing penmanship on scalloped pink stationary. “Dear Mr. Pinochet,” wrote one, “I am just so very disappointed to hear about this behavior.”

Donny and I lived in Rome when Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I came out. It didn’t open in Rome, though.  Porky’s opened in Rome. People lined up to see The Cannonball Runin Rome. Caddyshack was wildly popular in Rome. Chariots of Fire did not open in Rome. We had to drive an hour and a half out of the Blue Ridge Mountains, across the clean rivers and past the discount carpet outlets, to the traffic-clogged state capital of Atlanta to see movies with Jews in them.  In the famous closing sequence of History of the World Part I—“Jews in Space”—space shuttles shaped like Jewish stars, with Kosher written in Hebrew along the wings, whiz across the solar system, while rabbis peer anxiously out of their windshields through binoculars and then do some Israeli dancing.  The Jews are in space, they sing with Yiddish accents.

They’re zooming along, protecting the Hebrew race.
The Jews are in space.
If trouble appears they’ll put it right back in its place…

“If this movie ever comes to Rome, people won’t understand this part,” we told our friends in Atlanta as we exited the theater.

“Whenever they sing, ‘The Jews are in space,’” said our friend Allen Baverman, “they’ll need a subtitle that says, ‘The Essermans are in space.’”

Our next-door-neighbor in Rome, a railroad man and Viet Nam vet named Steve Long, couldn’t delineate what about us was urban, what was college-educated, and what was Jewish. He was fascinated by every aspect of our lives (like why we subscribed to the New York Times instead of the Rome News-Tribune which carried the day’s TV listings and boy scout announcements) but it was the Jewish angle that intrigued him the most. He drove Donny all over North Georgia in search of a box of Passover Matzo that spring. While Donny tried to explain to yet another grocery store manager what exactly he was looking for, Steve leaned over and confided, man to man: “It’s some kind of Jew food.” He popped in one day when we were steaming artichokes for dinner.  He got that strange half-smile on his face he got whenever he knew he was approaching something really peculiar.  He donned an oven mitt, lifted the pot lid, and sprang back in shock.  He returned to stand in the steam, sadly regarding the artichokes for a long minute, replaced the lid, and turned to face us.  “I know, I know,” he said, already chuckling and putting up his hands in self-defense. “It’s Jew food.”

Something is gained, of course, in the increasingly widespread acceptance of ethnicities in America, in the mushrooming of small restaurants with international cuisine, in the rainbow-hued classrooms of American children, in the Babel of tongues heard on the streets even of moderate-sized and small cities, and in the fact of Republican politicians trying to use words like chutzpah.  Actually, a lot is gained. We’re all the richer in this country. If anything at all is lost, I guess it’s the way we 20 or 25 Jews in Rome—almost as far out of our element as Mel Brooks’s Jews in Space—embraced one another, laughed together, gathered—the entire community—under one roof to make a seder, to kindle a menorah, to celebrate our daughter Molly’s baby-naming. Far from the Latvian-Jewish world left behind by the Essermans, and from the Lithuanian-Jewish world left by my grandparents, we made a Jewish village in Rome, Georgia. Sometimes it takes a shtetl.

 Melissa Fay Greene has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's author blogging series.

Different Jokes for Different Folks

Wednesday, August 03, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Melissa Fay Greene shared the story behind the adoption of her daughter, Helen, from Ethiopia. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

Twenty years ago, as I set out upon my very first book tour, for Praying for Sheetrock—my 1991 work of nonfiction about the heyday of a corrupt ‘courthouse gang’ on the flowery coast of Georgia and the belated rise of civil rights there—I discovered I had a line in my book-talk that only Jews laughed at.

It was unintentional on my part. I thought it was funny; I didn’t realize until I criss-crossed the country with it, like a stand-up comic, that it wasn’t funny to non-Jews.

The scene: “the blazing summer nights of 1975, as darkness dropped…” when the rural black citizens of McIntosh County, enraged by the police shooting of an unarmed man and by the deliberate neglect of the all-black public school system by the all-white school board, stormed across the sand parking lot, illuminated by bare light-bulbs dangling from wires strung through the live-oak trees, and crowded into the weather-beaten Shorters Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

I read aloud from my book: “Every pew in the church was packed; well-dressed people lined the walls and crowded into the rear of the church; and a choir in royal-blue satin robes led the congregation in rich and heartfelt music. The choir held hymnals without looking into them and swayed heavily back and forth in unison, stamping once as they leaned left, stamping again as they leaned right, and the congregation in full voice joined in.”

Then I told a story that was not in the book.  “Whenever I attended one of these political prayer meetings,” I told my audience, “I was always seated up front, an honored guest, the only white person in the room. It was a disadvantage because I couldn’t really see what was going on, without constantly looking over my shoulder.  One night the minister, to be especially welcoming to me, invited me to come up and lead a hymn. ‘Oh no, I couldn’t,’ I stammered, ‘for two reasons: first, I can’t sing like THAT, like these incredible voices. And secondly, I’m Jewish and I don’t know the words.’

“’Welcome to you!’ cried the tall skinny perspiring coal-black reverend, dressed in a tight-fitting coal-black suit like a mortician. ‘The black and the white, the Greek and the Jew, we’re all children of Christ.”

That’s when the Jewish people in my audiences laughed. From New York to Seattle, from Madison, Wisconsin, to Austin, Texas, Jews laughed at that line.  If I heard one laugh only, I could glance up from my notes and spot him or her instantly: Of course, Mrs. Goldberg, there you are; oh, Dr. Stein, how are things here in Kansas City?

It wasn’t a funny line to Christians, though. It comes from Scripture (I learned, on the road), from the Epistle to the Colossians (as it was pointed out to me) wherein it is written: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.  [Colossians, 3. 9]

So I had to help my Christian friends see the humor. If I delivered the reverend’s line and no one laughed, I added: “I hadn’t ever heard it put like that before.”

I picked up a couple of chuckles here and there with that annotation, but it took another comment—“You know, that’s not what our rabbis tell us”—to really bring them home. Then everyone could laugh, because then they got why Ithought it was funny and it suddenly struck my audiences as a funny scene after all.

My high point with that line occurred here in Atlanta, at Central Presbyterian Church located in the heart of old downtown. I gave my Sheetrock talk and delivered my ‘We’re all children of Christ’ line and the entire audience exploded with laughter.

I was so stunned I couldn’t go on.

I came completely out of my author persona.

“Wait… what?” I said. “Why did you all laugh at that?”

The hearty audience laughed harder.

“But… but that’s a line that only Jews laugh at.”

Now they howled.

I looked hard at them, through narrowed eyes. “Are there a bunch of converts from Judaism in this church?”

Now they were shrieking.

“I don’t get it,” I said. I stood quietly, waiting for an explanation.

“Melissa,” said the hip young minister kindly. “I think we are laughing because we understand why that was funny to you.”


In 1996, I went on book tour again, this time with The Temple Bombing, about mid-20th  century white supremacist extremism and the 1958 attack on a Reform temple in Atlanta whose rabbi, Jacob M. Rothschild, was a fire-breathing advocate for racial justice.

Oddly, on this book tour, I ended up with a line that only Christians laughed at.

It went like this:

“We had a hard time coming up with a name for this book,” I told my audiences. “I wanted to call it When the Wolves of Hate were Loose, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning column, denouncing the bombing, written by Ralph McGill of theAtlanta Constitution the morning after the attack.

“But my publisher said it was too long a title; they said I could call it The Wolves of Hate.  But I said the book wasn’t about the wolves of hate; it was about a time when the wolves of hate were on the loose.  Then the publisher said there were too many wolves on the bookstore shelves already—there were wolf calendars, wolf address books—so forget the wolves. Then my mother got into the act, because she loved the title. She said, ‘Sweetie, why don’t you just find a different animal?’

“’Oh great, Mom,’ I said. ‘You mean like …When the Gerbils of Hate were Loose?’

“That’s when a friend came up with his great idea. ‘Melissa,’ he said. ‘Just call the book A Bomb In Gilead.’”

And that turned out to be a line that only Christians laughed at.  Why?

Because (I learned) ‘A balm inGilead’ is a common phrase in the Christian church. There is a popular African-American spiritual and Christian hymn (I learned) that goes like this:

There is a balm inGilead/To make the wounded whole;

There is a balm inGilead/To heal the sin-sick soul.

If you can’t preach like Peter,/If you can’t pray like Paul,

Just tell the love of Jesus,/And say He died for all.

Meanwhile, Gilead has been used by black preachers to refer to the American South. So my friend’s punning book title, A Bomb in Gilead, worked.

For Christians.

But it happened, with my Temple Bombing talk, that I had reams of fantastic material that was mildly amusing to Christians, but really funny for Jews, about some of the traditions that emerged among the Classical Reform temples in the middle of the 20th century, like blowing a trumpet instead of a ram’s horn on Rosh Hashanah because a ram’s horn was too Jewish; or the High Holy Day Shrimp Fry in a Louisiana congregation; or the time an Orthodox fellow found himself in a Southern town with only one Reform temple in which to daven on Yom Kippur and when he began knocking on his chest during the Al chet confession of sins people rushed to his aid because they thought he was having a heart attack.

So, I did this: I clipped together about six pages of my funniest stories for Jews and had them ready to go.

If, when I delivered the Bomb in Gilead line, there was widespread laughter among my listeners, I—while continuing to gaze smilingly upon my audience—subtly removed my paper-clipped pages and pushed them to the side, to be saved for another day.

But if the Bomb in Gilead line got no reaction, I looked out happily across my blank-faced audience, slipped my paper-clipped pages to the top, and prepared to give my fellow Jews a rollicking ride.

Now I’m touring with my new book, No Biking in the House Without A Helmet, my first truly light-hearted book, about raising our nine children: four by birth, one adopted from Bulgaria, and four adopted from Ethiopia.

I got into trouble with it my very first night out, the very first time I introduced material not from the book but from family life.

It concerned bringing five-year-old Helen from her Ethiopian orphanage into our family and into Judaism. She’d lost both her parents in the vast HIV/AIDS pandemic and had landed in a evangelical Christian orphanage in Addis Ababa, where we found her. At six years of age, she sat between me and my husband at Yom Kippur services. I whispered to her the importance of this day. “Thousands of years ago,” I said, “it was on this day only that the High Priest stepped into the Holy of Holies inside the Temple and—on this day only—he pronounced God’s name.  He was the only person alive who knew God’s name and these days nobody knows it.”

“I know God’s name,” the adorable little girl whispered back happily.

“You do?” whispered seven-year-old Jesse from my other side.  “What is it?”

And Helen tossed her braids happily and pronounced in a voice loud and clear enough for all to hear: “Jesus Christ.”

Unfortunately I was 80% of the way into the telling of this story—I had reached “I know God’s name,” whispered the little girl—when I suddenly thought, What on earth am I doing?? this audience is three-quarters non-Jewish! this is not going to be funny!! I’m going to offend people!!

Frantically I tried to invent, on the spot, a different punch-line.

But once you’ve reached, “You do? What is it?” in that story, it’s too late to invent a new punchline.

There was no way around it; I had to go through it. “Jesus Christ,” I said miserably, now whispering myself, and then I briskly turned the page and began with religion-neutral material.

Now I look forward to touring amongst the Jewish Book Festivals this fall, with the confidence that—if there’s a story none of you finds funny—it may play very, very well in New Hampshire.

Melissa Fay Greene’s latest book, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, is now available.

Raising an Ethiopian Jewish Child in Georgia

Monday, August 01, 2011 | Permalink

Melissa Fay Greene is the author of No Biking in the House Without a HelmetShe will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog series.

The whole family at Yosef's bar mitzah party, 2010

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November 2001, I pulled up to the gates of the compound of the Beta Israel people (disparagingly known as Falashas [strangers]), hoping to be admitted, along with my brand-new daughter, to Shabbat morning services.

Arriving among these religiously-observant and destitute people, of rural origin, by taxi rather than on foot was likely to make a poor impression. But I’d known no one in the area to ask for Shabbat hospitality and my hotel stood half a city away from this dusty ramshackle neighborhood of mud huts and corrugated tin roofs. It was my first trip to Ethiopia. I’d flown seven thousand miles to report for the New York Times Magazine on conditions among some of Africa’s orphans of HIV/AIDS (which eventually gave rise to my book, There Is No Me Without You (Bloomsbury, 2007) and to meet a five-year-old girl named Helen, whom my family was adopting.

Helen in the orphanage

We were an American-Jewish family of seven, living in Atlanta; we had four children by birth and one by adoption from Bulgaria. The year the children were 6, 9, 13, 17, and 20, I lingered at the sunny kitchen table one morning and read in the newspaper that the United Nations was calling Africa “a continent of orphans.” Fourteen to twenty-five million children had lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS. I read those pages not only as a concerned world citizen, but as a journalist, and as a mother aware that a perfectly good twin bed upstairs was going unused. “Could I write about this?” I wondered. I’d only stepped foot in Africa once, in Morocco, in my 20s. “Can you adopt from Africa?” I also wondered. “Can you adopt one of the fourteen to twenty-five million orphaned children?”

Aware of Israel’s airlift of 20,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in 1984 in Operation Moses (Mivtzah Moshe) and another 15,000 in Operation Solomon (Mitzvah Shlomo) in 1991, I located online an organization called the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry [NACOEJ], which helped support Jewish organizations in Addis. I phoned their New York office and asked, “Are any of the Jewish children orphans in need of adoption?”

The answer was yes, there were orphans, but no, they were not available for adoption. NACOEJ’s mission was to bring the people to Israel. They told me of an American orphanage in Addis, and I phoned there next, asking the same question in reverse: “Are any of the orphans Jewish?”

“They may be,” I was told, “but many don’t know what they are. We have a quarter-of-a-million orphans here. Is that your only criteria?”

By November I was on a plane to Addis: the New York Times had commissioned a story; and my family had been matched with Helen, a tiny, bright, and darling (non-Jewish) girl who’d lost her father when she was two, and her doting mother just a few months earlier.

Our first afternoon together in Addis Ababa, I took Helen shopping for new clothes, including shul clothes, and watched as she stepped out of her dusty orphanage jean overalls and into a complicated plaid wool jumper, a white blouse with a lace collar, and a royal blue corduroy jacket with brass buttons. Curly yarn sheep were affixed to the jumper and jacket. The ensemble seemed designed to be worn in Scotland at Christmastime rather than on a dry African plateau in 90-plus-degree heat to a jerry-rigged local synagogue. While I paid for the outfit and a new pair of sandals, she hopped beside me in excitement.

Helen now

Helen wore her new clothes that Saturday morning as our taxi parked outside the Jewish compound. Half a dozen young men—guards—surrounded our car and looked through the windows. Helen scooted under my arm in shyness. Our driver got out of the car to explain that I was an American Jew hoping to attend services. Arguments seemed to follow, with a lot of gesticulating, while more young men jockeyed for a closer look at us through the windows. I rolled down the window to greet them with my paltry number of Hebrew words. I displayed my Chai necklace, but they turned away. The discussion grew heated outside the car, until the taxi driver got back in to report that the guards did not think I looked Jewish. The child looked Jewish, but I did not. If only I’d brought a letter from a rabbi or from the Israeli embassy in Ethiopia, they would have welcomed me happily; but, without anyone vouching for me, they were obliged to turn me away.

In America, I look Jewish. In Ethiopia, I did not look Jewish. In Ethiopia, Helen looked Jewish. But, in America, Helen does not look Jewish. She has borne this bravely, while embracing Judaism with a full heart.

In my book, I describe preparing Helen for her conversion to Judaism at age six, including a visit to the mikveh. Jesse, then age 7, tried to explain:

Jesse had loved converting to Judaism! Well, he hadn’t loved the in-hospital under-total-anesthesia circumcision, but he didn’t really remember it. He had loved going to the mikveh. To attain a state of ritual purity, religious men and women disrobe and immerse themselves in a cistern, a natural spring, a flowing river, the ocean, or a very small indoor pool. Jesse fearlessly, nakedly, cannon-balled into the water of a tiled mikveh at a local synagogue under the gaze of an Orthodox rabbi; he immersed himself the required three times, and for good measure did a somersault, his little white butt flashing briefly above the water line.

Now, in the back seat of the car, he excitedly prepared Helen for her visit to the mikveh. “The blue-green water will cover all your body and make you Jewish!” he enthused.
“Yes! You take off all your clothes and you jump in!”
“Wait. You take off all your clothes?” she asked.
“Yes! And you jump in the blue-green water!”
“And the rabbi’s there?”
“Then I’m not taking off my clothes.”
“Yes, you have to,” he insisted. “The blue-green water touches every part of your body and makes you Jewish.”
“I’ll wear a swimsuit,” she said.
“You can’t! Right, Mommy? You have to be naked so the blue-green water can touch every part of your body and make you Jewish!”
“I am not taking off my underpants.”
“You have to!” he said again,, alarmed by this unforeseen obstacle. (In fact, it would be conducted with modesty and privacy.) Jesse was nearly weeping now: “The blue-green water has to touch every part of your body to make you Jewish.”
“Forget it,” Helen pronounced, looking out the window to end the discussion. “I am wearing my underpants.”
“FINE!” yelled Jesse. “Fine! But your BUTT is NOT going to be Jewish!”

Though Helen had been reassured of the modesty of the mikveh ceremony, she nevertheless panicked when the big day was upon us. She refused to emerge unclothed from the dressing room. “I don’t need to do this! I’m already Jewish!” she cried through the closed door. “My mother was Jewish!”

“Helen, REALLY? How do you know?” my husband and I called back.
“Because we always celebrated Chanukah!”
“OK, sweetie, hang on, let us ask the rabbi.”

The rabbi laughed merrily. “She picked the wrong holiday!” he said. “Ethiopian Jewry is older than Chanukah. If she’d said Sukkot, we’d have had something to talk about.”

“Helen, no, you’re not Jewish, come out!” we called, and she came.

She’s been trusting us ever since. She believes us that not all Jews are white people, although she was the only child of color in Religious School (until a family arrived with an adopted biracial daughter). She was the only child of color at her Jewish sleepaway camp. She was a gorgeous and historically-accurate Queen of Sheba (who was from Ethiopia) in Atlanta’s Purim parade. She helps make Shabos every Friday night. She davened so beautifully and hauntingly at her bat mitzvah, and then at her younger brother’s bar mitzvah—leading the Torah service, reading from the Torah, chanting the Haftorah, leading Minchah—that elderly men wept and asked where she’d been all their lives.

When Helen has outgrown her Jewish sleepaway camp, we will be happy to send her to Israel for travel and study, like her older siblings have done. I believe it will be obvious to everyone in Israel—teeming with Ethiopian Jewry—as it is obvious to us and to our congregation: this is what a Jewish child looks like.

Melissa Fay Greene‘s No Biking in the House Without a Helmet is now available. She will be blogging here all week.

Improving Moral Vocabulary

Thursday, July 28, 2011 | Permalink

Eric Greitens is the author of The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian, the Making of a Navy SEAL. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Author Blog.

In Tuesday’s post, I talked about how stories give us strength in trying times. Stories also have the power to repair and transform the reader and the writer.

The Jewish word tzedakah is usually translated as charity, but the word actually has a root that is closer to “justice,” and in this sense, tzedakah is understood not as something that is extra, but as something that is required. The allied Jewish concept of Gemilut Chasadim refers to the spirit in which the highest form of tzedakah is given, a spirit of all-loving kindness. We are required not only to repair the world and make it just, but we do this work best when we act with the spirit of loving-kindness.

We often live today with an impoverished moral vocabulary that limits our thinking about charity to questions about what we might do with our spare money, and our thinking about compassion to questions of what we might do with our spare time. If we give the resources of our time, our wisdom, and our wealth in the right way and at the right time, this can save lives. But there is a deeper power still. If we give in the spirit of loving-kindness practiced from one person to another, then we have tapped into an overwhelming power that can change our own lives just as we contribute service to others.

As a writer, the process of writing has allowed me to share stories of Marines hunting al Qaeda terrorists in Iraq and nuns who fed the destitute in Mother Teresa’s homes for the dying in India. Being able to relive these moments has enabled me to see how I’ve developed over the years. I’ve also had many readers tell me that the book has impacted them. Many have told me that they’ve been inspired to serve. And that, for me, is the most rewarding thing a writer can hear.

Eric Greitens’s newest book, The Heart and the Fist, is now available.