The ProsenPeople

Behind Farm 54: The Making of the Story “Houses”

Friday, July 15, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story and the second story in Farm 54In their final post, they share the background behind “Houses,” the third story in their graphic novel. They have been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Galit: This story is the most autobiographical of all three texts, the most true-to-life. I was drafted to compulsory army service in 1989 during the first Intifadah and, after basic training as an educational non-commissioned officer, I was assigned to a base near Bethlehem. Already on the first night I asked for a transfer away from the occupied territories but, while my request was being processed, I had to remain there for about two weeks. As in the book, on the very first night I went on a nocturnal house demolition mission, replacing another female soldier who did not want to go. The night left its mark on me and for many years I repeatedly retold the events, until I decided to write them as a short story. With the hindsight of a writer I realized that, beyond the actual events, what was perhaps worse was revealed by the way I described the heroine – as a person completely insulated from the situation and from the suffering of the others. While this dovish character manages to refrain from directly and deliberately harming the Palestinian residents placed under her responsibility, I now think that her (that is, my) decision to obey such orders with little protest is almost as harmful as keen participation.


Galit Seliktar during her military service, 1989/1990

An egg-sorting warehouse used as reference for “Houses”:



Gilad: There were parts in this story that I found to be too direct or dramatic, too loud. As I approached it, I decided to lower the volume by giving several scenes an understated quality, which is more characteristic of my work, as opposed to some of Galit’s writing that often tends to be more explicit. One of these scenes was the part where the female officer takes the rabbit from the Palestinian boy. In the original text (and, according to Galit, also in reality during that night in 1989) the boy was crying, asking the officer to give the rabbit back to him. Instead of showing the boy crying I drew him sitting quietly on the stairs, staring at how the officer hugs the animal, holding it close to her chest and cheek. The picture of that lone rabbit took me the greatest number of drafts by far. It was meant to facilitate calming the scene while introducing a charged and frozen silence that captures the moment with all its fear, resentment, and banality.

Early sketches for the scene in which the Israeli female officer is taking the Palestinian boy’s rabbi:



Photographs from a Palestinian village used as reference for “Houses” (name withheld at residents’ request):




Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s graphic novel, Farm 54, is now available.

Behind Farm 54: The Making of the Story “Spanish Perfume”

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Galit and Gilad Seliktar shared the making of the first story in Farm 54“The Substitute Lifeguard.” Today, they share the background behind “Spanish Perfume,” the second story in their graphic novel. They will be blogging all week of the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

Galit: In 1982 my father was enlisted to the First Lebanon War and my mother was left on the farm with four young children. Communication with the northern frontier was carried out through rare phone calls, messages from those who came home to the village for a short vacation and censor-approved green military postcards that my father would send each one of us. When I found some of those postcards several years ago – my mother’s, Gilad’s and mine – I recalled those chaotic days on the home front and this triggered the writing of “Spanish Perfume”. I was reminded that when my father was away in Lebanon, my mother hit our German shepherd with the car and then asked me and two of my siblings – Sharon & Oren – to take the dead dog out of the basement and bury it outside. Gilad, the youngest, was forbidden from going down to the basement. I also remember that my mother used to pass the stressful wartime evenings playing cards with “men that nobody wanted at war”.


"I am feeling quite well despite the fact that I’m abroad"– A postcard from the First Lebanon War, August 16th 1982


Early sketches of the dead German Shepherd

Gilad: If generally most of my work with Galit’s texts involved boiling down, and if the clichés about one image equaling a thousand words have much to sustain them, then there are also many instances where the opposite was the case. Galit’s prose version of “Spanish Perfume” began with two brisk lines:

“In the morning Mom ran over our German Shepherd.
In the evening we celebrated my birthday.”

This may work powerfully in a short story, but graphically such transitions, between day and night and between different settings, seem artificial. Eventually I devoted five pages to drawing only the first line, replacing the abruptness of the transition in the original with a gradual entry into the graphic narrative. When I first visited the basement for references after years of avoiding it, I was shocked to discover how neglected it was. Filled with piles of rusted tools and other forgotten items, including the wheelbarrow in which the dog was carried for its nocturnal burial. When I was very young my father used the basement as a firing range and I even had the chance to shoot a gun there, a nine millimeter pistol. I remember this basement as being very well organized and dry, as opposed to the neglect and water puddles characterizing it today. I chose to draw the basement as I saw it when working on the book, to capture the atmosphere I recognized in Galit’s texts.


"The forbidden basement"


The wheelbarrow used for the dog's burial

Check back on Friday for Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s final post for the JBC/MJL Author Blog. Their graphic novel, Farm 54is now available.

This Time Next Week: Twitter Book Club

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Our July Twitter Book Club is approaching fast!

Wednesday the 20th at 12:30 pm (Eastern) join us to discuss  The Eichmann Trial with Deborah Lipstadt.

Full details are available here.

Need something to hold you over till next week? Watch an interview with Deborah.

Jews! Photographs!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Just got wind of a gorgeous book published in the UK several years ago: A Book of Jews. A book of, well…Jews. Specifically, photographs of Jews. It’s filled with good Jews and bad Jews – popstars, politicians, serial killers, gangsters, movie stars, scientists…and so forth. Unfortunately, the book has yet to make its U.S. debut, but we can cross our fingers that something is in the works to bring these photographs across the pond. Meanwhile, you can visit the book’s website here, browse through some of the stunning photographs (and clean layout!) here, and if you have a few pounds to spare, you can even buy the book here*.

*Looks like the book is available in DOLLARS too… $495/copy, including courier delivery from the UK. This takes normally 5-7 days from receipt of order & payment. Email info@abookofjews.com for more information.



Behind Farm 54: The Making of the Graphic Novel

Monday, July 11, 2011 | Permalink

The graphic novel Farm 54 is based on three stories written by Galit Seliktar. The stories were first published in Israeli literary magazines and then adapted into a graphic novel by Galit’s brother, illustrator Gilad Seliktar. Farm 54 is a real place where both siblings were raised, an actual farm in Ganei-Yohanan – a small village located in Israel’s agricultural periphery, which was founded by Jewish immigrants from Russia, Yemen and Libya in the early 1950s. All the stories in Farm 54 are based on true events which took place between the mid-1970s and late 1980s. Farm 54 has been published so far in five languages, and was nominated for the 2009 Angoulême book award in France.


In the background: Farm 54, Winter 1982 (L to R: Gilad Seliktar, Moni Seliktar, Galit Seliktar)

THE SUBSTITUTE LIFEGUARD

Galit & Gilad: This story was the first collaboration between us and the cornerstone of Farm 54. It was first published in 2007 as a short graphic story in an Israeli literary magazine, Masmerim, and included a framed narrative which is omitted in the book. In that earlier version the story starts with the heroine visiting her brother’s grave where she relives his drowning in her mind.

Panels from the first version of “The Substitute Lifeguard” in which Noga visits her brother’s grave:



Galit: One afternoon, when Gilad was about two years old, our family was barbequing in the backyard. It was a hot day and my father went to look for one of our dogs he had seen disappear at the far end of the yard, a part covered with high grass and infested with snakes. On his way he passed by our blue fiberglass wading pool and heard heavy spattering. He thought he had found the dog, but it was Gilad, fighting for his life in the half-meter-high chlorinated water. I saw him in my father’s arms, fully dressed in his toddler clothes and wet to the bone. Both of them were quiet. The silence broke when my mother started screaming. Only then did we stop eating.

Gilad: “The Substitute Lifeguard” was the first time I had ever read any of Galit’s stories. I have only a vague recollection of the event itself, but her visual writing style took me back to the pool on some deep emotional level. I was aware of my sister’s many years of engagement with visual media such as photography and video, but only when reading about myself in that pool did I realize that her writing was also extremely visual and that the cinematic quality of her texts, along with the themes and settings that were also my own, could form the basis of a powerful collaboration. The first published version of “The Substitute Lifeguard” was very short. The compact format relied on the cemetery frame to create an immediate dramatic impact. In book form, the actual story could gradually unfold without this scaffolding, a device meant to generate sentiments that are yet to be sustained by the plot. As I was adapting and then re-adapting the text into graphic form, I found myself drawn to the cinematic format of a three-panel page that now shapes the entire book, perhaps owing to the way the prose was laid out on paper.

Galit: Of course I had to kill Gilad when I wrote this story. I also chose to transfer the drama from the actual wading pool to a manure pit that my father transformed into a swimming pool. It was part of a cowshed that my parents inherited from the former owner of the farm, together with a young calf. My father immigrated to Israel with his parents from Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1949, and grew up in Jaffa, where he met my mother. This urban boy knew nothing about farming and neither did she. On their first year as farmers my father had a severe allergic reaction to eggplant blossom which terminated his agricultural dreams. The calf froze to death in 1973; the same year my father was enlisted to take part in the war that broke out on Israel’s southern border. All the chicks that I used to play with (I was almost three years old at the time), perished from thirst after my mother had left the farm during the war to stay with her parents back in the city. Long after we stopped using the manure pit as a pool, our dogs used to sneak in through the ruined fence that surrounded it and, every so often, one of them would be found drowned in the rain water that half-filled the pool.


The manure pit which turned into a swimming pool and where the drama of "The Substitute Lifeguard" happens, and the old cowshed.

Gilad: Galit’s text of “The Substitute Lifeguard” was extremely poetic and saturated with elaborate descriptions. Finding my own voice in this dense story meant mostly condensing and editing out. While I did not change any of Galit’s words that made it into Farm 54, I did “translate” almost all of the narrative and descriptions into a graphical language, which obeys very different conventions, through my own visual perspective. Yet all my drawings follow closely the original text in terms of plot, description, atmosphere and dialogue. The fact that Galit is my sister was very liberating artistically as I wasn’t afraid to explore avenues that I might have hesitated to approach had I been working with someone whose text I’d have to adapt whilst “walking on eggs”.

Galit and Gilad Seliktar’s graphic novel, Farm 54is now available. They will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

Win a Pound of Coffee Roasted by Nathan Englander

Thursday, July 07, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Coffee lovers and Jewish literature lovers can come together over this sweet coupon contest from McSweeney’s:

If you open McSweeney’s 38, out later this month, to page 193, you’ll find something we haven’t tried before: our first-ever set of coupons, printed on the back of a small, sewn-in comic book. This is something we’ve wanted to do since Issue 33, at least, and now we are doing it—every copy of our thirty-eighth issue comes with three clip-and-mail rectangles that, if you send them to us, offer you a chance at having something sent back to you.

Coupons = Jewish. Even more Jewish…what you can get if you send them back:

… there are the ten pounds of coffee roasted by Mr. Nathan Englander, occasional McSweeney’s contributor and author of For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and The Ministry of Special Cases. He has been practicing, as the below video will attest, and by the time the winners are chosen (there will be ten bags, specially designed, of one pound each), we think his coffee will be very good indeed.


Thanks for the tip, Jason Diamond.

Making it “True”

Thursday, July 07, 2011 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Evan Fallenberg explored writing elaborate lies with convincing details. Today, he further explores how much of his fiction is “true”.

“How much of my book is true?” I could say ‘all of it,’ I could say ‘none of it,’ and both answers would be correct.

In order to create real characters that you, the reader, will believe, I must make them as true as possible. That does not mean basing them on anyone in particular, though I happily borrow snippets of stories and characteristics from friends, family and total strangers. But ultimately, the more I work with those characters, the more they evolve into themselves, which means they spin away from me, beyond what I knew or thought I knew about them to a place where it seems that they are in control of who they are and I am merely charged with capturing them on paper. If I seem mysterious about it, I don’t mean to be, but I myself cannot completely understand how it all works so I can’t expect anyone else to.

A case in point is Teo Levin, the eighty-five-year-old protagonist of my new novel, When We Danced on Water. He is a choreographer and former dancer, but even the company he directs – the Tel Aviv Ballet – is a product of my imagination. I provided him with a history, a career, lovers, a creative spark, a range of emotions and reactions, a face, a body, and in turn, he has kept me in line, checking some of my crazier or duller impulses. (He was originally far more cantankerous than his final, in-print version; but the grouchily perfectionist ballet master was too much of a cliché, and I am grateful to Teo for pointing that out to me.) To my delight and my frustration, however, people keep asking me to reveal on what real person he is modeled. That is delightful because it means I have made him real enough to believe, and frustrating because it should be of no consequence.

Similarly, I am flattered when people ask how long and where I danced. (I didn’t.) Dance, which is Teo’s medium and art form, takes a prominent place in the novel, and I had the task of describing it from without, as an observer, but also from within, from what Teo experiences when he moves his body to music. For the former I interviewed a marvelous dancer, dance teacher and choreographer, and for the latter I took dance lessons and learned the basics of ballet so that I could know what Teo was feeling when he stretched his toes into a sharp point or floated his arms above his head. I made the lie real for myself; only then could it be real for the reader.

Photo by Aliz Noy

It feels impossible to plot the course of my life, with all the reversals and vicissitudes and surprises and changes. But perhaps this one element – my joy of embellishing the truth – has its own continuum, from those detail-rich stories I made up for grammar-school classmates willing to listen, to the detail-rich novels I write for readers willing to read.

In my life as an adult I have tried to remain scrupulously truthful, largely, I suppose, as a reaction to all those childhood lies. And yet, when I tell stories that really happened, I cannot seem to control the impulse to elaborate, to add color and texture to the picture I’m drawing for my listener. It is an occupational hazard I can live with, and one that has served me well.

Evan Fallenberg’s most recent novel, When We Danced on Water, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Tonight’s the Night

Wednesday, July 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

…for the JBC, Jewcy, and Vol. 1 Brooklyn Sholem Aleichem party in honor of the new documentary Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.

The event will be at (le) poisson rouge from 7:30PM-10:30PM and will feature readings from Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Matthue Roth, Rachel Shukert, Jeremy Dauber, Joanna Smith Rakoff, and Jonathan and Adam Wilson. Read more about the event here.

And, starting THIS FRIDAY you can catch the documentary over at Lincoln Plaza (NYC). More details below:

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness
Directed by Joseph Dorman

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on July 8th
With screenings daily through July 14th

Tickets & show times: www.lincolnplazacinema.com
More info: www.sholemaleichemthemovie.com

A riveting portrait of the great writer whose stories became the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the RoofSholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness tells the tale of the rebellious genius who created an entirely new literature. Plumbing the depths of a Jewish world locked in crisis and on the cusp of profound change, he captured that world with brilliant humor. Sholem Aleichem was not just a witness to the creation of a modern Jewish identity, but one of the very men who forged it.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that icons are people, too, especially when you first meet that icon in your childhood. As Joseph Dorman demonstrates in this brilliantly absorbing documentary, however, Sholem Aleichem was most definitely a person—a dandy and a stock market gambler who did not teach his own children to speak Yiddish, wildly popular with the Eastern Europeans whose lives he memorialized but utterly unable to capture the imagination of the American Jews he came to despise. Rounding out the portrait even more, Dorman does a magnificent job of explicating the historical context in which Sholem Aleichem worked. Plus the still photography is to die for.” - Judith Gelman Myers, Hadassah Magazine

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness had its premiere at the 2011 Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New York Jewish Film Festival, a presentation of The Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Elaborate Lies with Convincing Details

Tuesday, July 05, 2011 | Permalink

Evan Fallenberg is the author of When We Danced on Water, a novel. He will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.

I am probably a writer of fiction (as opposed to nonfiction) because from a very early age I loved to tell elaborate lies with convincing details. In the first grade I affected a British accent to tell the story of my birth in the back of a Volkswagen in London; in the seventh grade I concocted a potion of hand cream and food coloring to give myself a tan following a non-existent family trip to Hawaii, where our family (according to the extended version of my lie) was going to be relocating.

I was a child with curiosity and wanderlust and a colorful, lively imagination. My lies were not malicious and were only vaguely self-serving; mainly they existed to add glamour to a life that felt too ordinary. In bed at night I spoke to myself in faux French, puffing out my lips and making a lot of zh sounds. It follows that during the daylight hours I would wish to spice things up.

It is important to note that my lies never contained magical elements. No one ever flew or was transported in time machines. Instead, I took the everyday materials of real life (we actually had a little Volkswagen when I was six) and reworked the story, the surroundings. I took my real self and removed him from Ohio (and usually America), gave him the ability to speak many languages, dressed him in fancy clothes and then…well, then, my imagination could take me only as far as books and television had brought me by that time.

My lies brought attentive audiences, from whom I learned the art of brevity, and the need for credible plot twists and satisfying surprises. I was keenly aware of eyes glazing over or people wandering away, so I did my best to rivet them to where they were standing. My lies got me into trouble – one such lie caused my demotion from valedictorian to salutatorian of my high school graduating class – and out of trouble as well, as when, in the fourth grade, our substitute teacher found a nasty poem I had penned about her circulating in class, and in order to gain her sympathy I told her a horrifying story about cancer and death and sadness in our family, none of which was (yet) true.

I am lucky to have found a healthy channel for my need to invent. And like those early lies, much of what I make up for my books has elements of truth to it. Which is why I am both bothered and sympathetic when asked how much, or what, in my novels is true.

Come back all week to read more of Evan Fallenberg’s post. His new novel,When We Danced on Water, is now available.

The Gourmet’s Kids Ate Junk

Friday, July 01, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Efrat Libfroind wrote about her tribe, cooking and self-improvement and being a mother, a full-time pastry chef and the only kosher cooking student in class. Her new cookbook, Kosher Elegance, is now available.

I didn’t sleep much the night before we started taking pictures for my cookbook. It had already been a stressful few days. Taking pictures meant I finally had to decide which recipes were going into the book and which were out. We were not taking any pictures which weren’t needed – so receipes had to be chosen in advance. It was like giving up favorite friends. I love all my recipes. But I had to come to terms with the fact that I needed to love some more than others. Not easy.

Then, I had to shop. I had to get the best of everything. Freshest, most attractive…because soon cameras would be zooming in to every millimeter of my cooking. It had to look good. I shopped in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda shuk. It is an amazing place and it has the most gorgeous food. All I can say is, “I must go to the shuk more often.” The best supermarkets don’t come close.

After all this, I was tossing and turning, not sleeping, worrying about the big day. I had experience with food photography for magazines which published my recipes. And I learned that the best dishes don’t always appear well in photographs and that it can take an hour (or two) just to get the portion to look just like I think it ought to (yes, I am a perfectionist). I was worried about what my book would look like.

We started taking pictures at 6 A.M. A whole slew of people were involved: Photographers, assistant photographers, food stylists, lighting staff….and me. I am sure they’d have been happy not to have me there – at times I made them a bit crazy – things didn’t always look exactly like I wanted them and I was pretty protective of my food – I wanted the pictures to be perfect.

We ended close to midnight that first day. We could barely stand on our feet. All in all, it really was a great day. We did eat a lot of the food I prepared, so that was a plus.

Most of the photography took place in my house (except for 2 grueling sessions in a studio). Since my kids would get home from school while we were still working I needed something special to keep them busy. I broke all my rules and gave them money to go out and buy….junk food. This is not something we do in our family. My kids were thrilled. They are lobbying me to start work on another book ASAP.

Mediterranean Focaccia

Makes approximately 15 focaccias, depending on pan size

In this recipe I managed to take focaccia, which is normally roundish and asymmetrical, and turn it into a perfect square. The new shape, together with a rich Mediterranean topping, makes this dish unbeatable.

Dough:
3½ – 4 cups flour
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1½ – 2 cups water
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
4 tablespoons olive oil

Topping:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch rosemary leaves
1 red onion, diced
2 zucchini or 1 small eggplant, diced
1 handful cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 handful olives

Dough: Put yeast in a mixer bowl. Add sugar and 1/2 cup of the water. Let yeast stand for 10 minutes. Add remaining ingredients and combine until a soft dough forms. Let rise in a warm place for about an hour.

Topping: Heat olive oil and rosemary in a frying pan. Add onion and saute on a high flame for about 3 minutes. Add zucchini or eggplant, tomatoes, and garlic, and saute for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Discard rosemary and add olives.

Preheat oven to 350°F. Press the dough into any symmetrical silicone mold you choose. If you don’t have silicone molds, you can make traditionally shaped focaccias. (Divide dough into about 15 balls (for mini-focaccias, divide into 20–25 balls). Shape each ball into a flat oval and pierce with a fork.)

Top dough with a generous amount of topping and bake for about 20 minutes.

Tip: You can substitute whole wheat flour for white flour, but you may need to add 1/4 cup water.

Tip: For an even richer taste, sprinkle focaccias with cubes of feta cheese 5 minutes before they are finished baking.

Efrat Libfroind is the author of Kosher Elegance. She will be posting all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.