The ProsenPeople

Jews in America's West

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 | Permalink

Yesterday, Anna Solomon wrote for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning about a grandmother's secrets. Her novel, The Little Bride, is now available.

I still don’t know how the subject of Israel came up. I was at a party, in line at the bar, when the man in front of me turned and said, “You know, I have a solution to that whole problem in the Middle East.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, nor did I know which problem he was referring to, until he gave me a wary look and said, “Are you Jewish?”

“I am,” I said. Clearly this man doesn’t know Jews, I thought.

“I am, too,” said the bartender, “so be careful what you say.”

The man appeared a little abashed, a little excited. Two Jews!

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been listening to all the news about the violence and bombings and everything, and I was hearing something on the radio about how in the Great Plains they’re losing population every day, all the young people are leaving, and I thought: why don’t they just move Israel to the Dakotas?”

The bartender smiled. I smiled. I was in shock. Not just because the proposal was so offensive, or because this man had the gall to share it with us, but because something similar to it had been proposed 130 years ago, by Jews in Odessa. As pogroms intensified, many Eastern European Jews were heading east, to Palestine. But this Odessa group – Am Olam, they called themselves, meaning Eternal People – decided that Jews should head to America’s West, and become farmers. From 1880 to 1920, Jewish agricultural colonies were founded across this country, in Oregon, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey – and, yes, in North and South Dakota.

And, I’d written a novel about it.

I mentioned this last part nonchalantly. I didn’t get into politics or history or point out to him his obvious ignorance about “the situation” in Israel. I just took my beer and walked away. But I have to admit: this man got me thinking. What if the Am Olam farmers in America had succeeded? (Most wound up back in cities and towns.) What if there was a veritable Jewish state smack in the middle of our country and Jews there played every role, as we do in Israel? Farmer, mechanic, electrician, plumber, cook, rancher. Imagine. I was reminded of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon – a similarly wild vision, of Jews taking refuge in Alaska. What if such a thing had come to pass in the lower 48? It’s not a proposal, but a re-envisioning, an expansion of my sometimes narrow assumptions about what Jews can be and do and mean in America today. This expansion has led me to question, and search. And guess what I found? There are Jewish kids learning to farm right now, in 2011, at the Jewish Farm School in upstate New York.


Check back tomorrow for Anna Solomon's final post for the Visiting Scribe.

JLit Links

Monday, November 21, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A Grandmother's Secrets

Monday, November 21, 2011 | Permalink

Anna Solomon's debut novel, The Little Bride, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother recently. This is my paternal grandmother, the longest-lived of my four grandparents and the only one I came to know well. Her name was Rose – like so many women of her generation – and the name suited her personality: under her smooth exterior (held in place by corset and garters) there were thorns.

People use a lot of words to describe women like Rose. Hard. Cold. Judgmental. Even unloving. But – and it’s a big but – Rose was a mother, to four children. She has nine grandchildren now, most of us with advanced degrees, thriving in every corner of this country. How do we reconcile what we knew of her with what she gave us?

A couple weeks ago I visited a book group that had read my first novel,
The Little Bride. The women were discussing my protagonist, Minna Losk, a Jewish orphan who travels to America in the 1880s as a mail-order bride. They were talking about how complicated she is – how along with being strong and compassionate she can also be stubborn and selfish. One woman said she forgave Minna all of it, because of what she’d been through. “She’s a survivor," she said, and the other women nodded. “She reminds me of my grandmother,” the woman went on. “And my grandmother was not a nice woman.”

Immediately, others began to speak.

“My grandmother wasn’t nice, either.”

“Mine was very cold.”

“I never saw my grandmother smile.”

The table erupted in laughter. Then the women began talking about their grandmothers, and why they thought they’d been the way they were. They wondered about stories they’d heard – of
immigration, or abuse, or miscarriages. And they wondered about stories that might have been kept a secret.

As they talked, I started wondering about Rose. Most of her stories had been about my grandfather’s history, or about her children. She hadn’t often talked about herself. What was her story, not the public version but the private one? What were her secrets? How had she become the woman I knew?

That conversation opened up a new door for me in my relationship with my grandmother. Fiction can do this, I think – it can lead us, however circuitously, to new compassion: for difficult characters, yes, but also for the people in our own lives. I feel closer, suddenly, to my Grandma Rose. I can hear her scolding me – “But I’m not even alive.” But I don’t think that matters one bit.

Anna Solomon's debut novel, The Little Bride, is now available. Read more about Anna on her website and find discussion questions for your book club here.

Book Cover of the Week: The Archaeology of Home

Thursday, November 17, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

After a long week, this was a breath of fresh air:

The Archaeology of Home: An Epic Set on a Thousand Square Feet of the Lower East Side 

was published in March 2011 by PublicAffairs.

The Jewish Message

Friday, November 11, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tom Fields-Meyer wrote about reading and thinking about books and took a look at autism and GodHe has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.


Tom and Ezra

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of speaking at an event to benefit my children’s summer camp. In the midst of a lovely discussion, the rabbi who runs the camp offered a question: “What’s your book’s Jewish message?”

I stammered and stumbled a bit before I came up with an answer. But afterwards, I kept thinking about the question. I tend to come up with much more articulate responses the next morning, on my jog, than on the spot. (That’s why I’m a writer and not, say, a White House spokesman.)

Following Ezra tells the story of raising our middle son for the decade from his autism diagnosis at age three through the day of his one-of-a-kind bar mitzvah. It’s loaded with Jewish content: there’s the awkward, hilarious conversation he had with a neighbor on the walk to synagogue one Shabbat; there’s the wonderful conversation when Ezra learned about the Eighth Commandment (the hard way); and of course there’s the last chapter, detailing the days surrounding my son’s bar mitzvah celebration. 

But what’s the Jewish message?

In the book of Genesis, it says God created human beings in God’s image. That means we should treat every person with dignity, respect and honor—no matter their disability, no matter what they look like, no matter how many times they remind us when the next Pixar movie is premiering (a habit of Ezra’s that can be either endearing or annoying, depending on your perspective). That also means that encountering people who are different from us—from different backgrounds, different circumstances, or facing different challenges—gives us a insight into the many aspects of the divine.

My book begins with an epigraph, a single bracha, a traditional blessing. Jewish liturgy is full of blessings recited on various occasions. Most Jews are familiar with the blessings said over wine or before eating bread. One of my favorite pages in the Artscroll prayer book lists “Blessings of Praise and Gratitude,” the brachot that are reserved for life’s unusual encounters. There’s one for seeing lightning, and one for experiencing an earthquake. There’s a particular blessing to say when you see 600,000 people in once place. (How often do you get to use that one?) 

In the midst of that list, the prayer book includes a blessing to say upon seeing a person who is different. The Talmud enumerates the various kinds of people included. It praises God, mishaneh habriyot—who “creates variety among living beings.”

Blessed is God for creating all kinds of people. What better words could introduce a story about raising a child with an unusual and fascinating mind? 

And what better Jewish message could there be?

Tom Fields-Meyer is the author of Following Ezra. A former senior writer for People, he has written for dozens of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal

One Book, One Community in Chicago

Thursday, November 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Spertus College recently announced their One Book, One Community pick for Jewish Book Month: A Day of Small Beginnings (Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum)

A Day of Small Beginnings was selected with recommendations from Spertus staff and local Jewish librarians. Spertus Director of Programming Beth Schenker says, “We selected A Day of Small Beginnings because the novel addresses ideas about Jewish faith on both a very personal level and through the wide lens of political and social change. It examines the loss of Jewish family history and cultural heritage against the backdrop of increased freedom and opportunities in the secular world.”

Spertus has created some great resources to go along with the book, which you can check out below:

RAFFLE AND RESOURCES
A special section of the Spertus website—accessible at Spertus.edu/OneBook—links to program information, a downloadable version of the reader resource guide, and a drawing for books and items related to the story.

Plus, check out these great One Book, One Community events:

Kick-Off Event—Getting Inside the Story 
Sunday, November 13 at 2pm at Spertus
(This event is Free)

Lecture & Discussion—Revolution & Tradition in Jewish Literature
Sunday, November 20 at 2pm at The Book Stall at Chestnut Court, 811 Elm Street, Winnetka

Lecture & Dance Demonstration—What Makes a Jewish Dance? 
Thursday, December 1 at 6:30pm at Spertus

AUTHOR APPEARANCES—Lisa Pearl Rosenbaum 
Sunday, December 4
2pm at Spertus
7pm at the Wilmette Public Library, 1242 Wilmette Avenue

Each program is $18 ($10 for Spertus members and $8 for students).
As an incentive for book groups to attend together, tickets are $10 per person for groups of ten or more.
Advance tickets are strongly recommended.
Tickets can be purchased online at spertus.edu or by phone at 312.322.1773.
A Day of Small Beginnings will be for sale at all events.

JLit Links

Thursday, November 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Reading and Thinking about Books

Wednesday, November 09, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Tom Fields-Meyer took a look at autism and God. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

Every Saturday morning, I ask my son Ezra the same question. As our family prepares to head out for the walk to synagogue, I stop Ezra with five words before he gets to the door:

“Do you have your books?”

This sends him to his bedroom to fill his red backpack with a handful of volumes: the Pixarpedia, a detailed taxonomy of Pixar’s animated movies; a 600-plus page animal encyclopedia; and sometimes a canine almanac called The Dog Breed Bible.

It’s an unusual selection, but Ezra, who is 15, is a singular kid. High-functioning autism makes it difficult for him to sit in one place, whether that place is his math classroom, a restaurant booth, or the pews of our neighborhood shul. Since he was young, the one thing that could get Ezra to sit still was a book.

He’d take The Cat in the Hat on the school bus to ease the transition from school to home. He’d sit at the local pizza parlor, poring over Richard Scarry picture books. And in synagogue he always had his red backpack.

His teachers say that reading is among his significant deficits. At his special-needs school, Ezra takes a remedial reading class designed to improve comprehension and fluency. But that would surprise the people who know him from synagogue, the ones who would hardly recognize my son without his head buried in a book. 

The truth is that he does struggle with long passages of writing—dry science textbooks, say, or young adult novels. But for what specialists call his “topics of interest”—principally animals and animated movies—Ezra has endless focus, and an uncanny ability to absorb and remember facts. 

That’s what he’s often doing in shul while the rest of the minyan is paying attention to the Torah reading or that week’s sermon (or, occasionally, dozing). 

Like many people with autism, Ezra tends to isolate himself, but in synagogue, the books connect him. People sitting nearby take notice, and he’ll show them what he’s reading. Or he’ll make his way to the lobby, where my wife and I sometimes find him sitting on the floor, sharing a book with a young child.
Transitions can be difficult for kids like Ezra, but having a book is a way to bring his world with him and make almost any place comfortable and secure. Having his books with him has helped make synagogue a second home for Ezra, and a happier place for the rest of the family.

Occasionally, we’re running late on a Saturday morning and rush out the door. Then, halfway to the synagogue, I realize we’ve forgotten the red backpack. That used to mean certain disaster. One of the delights of watching Ezra enter the teen years has been his increasing self awareness, his growing ability to handle the unexpected.

“You want me to go back and get your books?” I ask.

“No, that’s okay,” he says with a smile. “I’ll just think about them.”

Tom Fields-Meyer is the author of Following Ezra.

Autism and God

Monday, November 07, 2011 | Permalink

Tom Fields-Meyer is the author of Following Ezra, a memoir about learning from his autistic son. He will be blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I was a guest on a radio talk show last week when the interviewer offered a question that caught me off guard. In the midst of a discussion about raising my son Ezra, who has autism, she asked: “With a person who is so comfortable with things that are very concrete and predictable, how do you explain a concept like God?”

As it happens, God comes up in conversation quite a bit in our household. My wife is a rabbi who teaches Jewish texts at a Jewish community high school. We attend synagogue every Shabbat, and our family life revolves around the Jewish calendar.

Ezra, who indeed craves the predictable, has always been attracted to the more concrete aspects of Judaism: the calendar, the holiday cycles, the weekly rituals. At an early age, he memorized the ten plagues, and began acting them out—dramatically, and in order—at our seder. He has always been attracted to Bible stories pitting good against evil: Moses vs. Pharaoh, David vs. GoliathMordecai vs. Haman.

Understanding God was different. During prayer services at his Jewish summer camp, the kids in the special needs program sing a song called “Thank You, God,” taking turns expressing what they’re grateful for. But beyond that simple understanding, I simply didn’t know what he grasped.

In the radio interview, I recounted the time when Ezra, then 12, had been in a particularly surly mood, fixated on talking repetitively about his craving for potato chips. Partly to shake him out of it, I spontaneously began speaking in the voice of God (or the kind of booming voice Charlton Heston heard in The Ten Commandments). To my surprise, Ezra—who generally avoids extended conversations—went along, and engaged in a lengthy and revealing dialogue with God. (Miraculously, he also stopped talking about junk food.)

More recently, Ezra, now 15, has approached the subject of divinity with more resistance. On a Saturday stroll not long ago, he asked my wife and me about why we observe Shabbat. When we reminded him of the idea that God created the world in six days, he interrupted.

“I don’t think God did that,” he said. “I think it was more natural.”

I’d never heard him say anything like that.

“Where did you hear that?” I asked. “Did somebody tell you that?”

“No,” he insisted. “I just think the world was was more from nature, not from God.”

As the interviewer noted, children like Ezra can struggle with abstract concepts, but my son seems to be doing fine. The Hebrew word “Yisrael” — Israel — literally translated means “struggles with God.”

Not only was Ezra sounding like a typical, questioning teenager, he was doing so in the best tradition of the Jewish people — struggling and wrestling with God.  As in so many cases, whenever I think I need to teach my son, he turns the tables and teaches me.

Tom Fields-Meyer is a writer and journalist. A former senior writer for People, he has written for dozens of publications, including The New York Times Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.

Silence, Blessed Silence

Friday, November 04, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Gloria Spielman wrote about finding fellow writers on the Internet and the University of the Ghetto. Her most recent book, Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

One of the upshots of all the reading and thinking I did for Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, was that I ended up doing a lot of thinking about something I’d never thought that much about before – silence and its power.

It never used to be like this. I wasn’t always on a quest for quiet. An only child, I yearned for noise, for hustle and bustle, a busy house with lots of people and their comings and goings. Who the hell needed quiet? Quiet was boring, unnerving, depressing, threatening even. A void to be filled. So, on went the TV the second I came home, the radio in the kitchen, a favourite tape, anything, as long as there was noise. Anyway, how could you do homework with no music? I had a friend at elementary school, who came from an odd family. They were odd as they had no TV. I remember thinking. What do they do for noise? It must be terrible, all that quiet. (Ironically, we are bringing up five children without a TV, but that’s a tale for another day.)

It seems I wasn’t alone. The world is full of intentional background noise: TVs no one is really watching, radios no one is really listening to and why? Just to break the silence, that’s why. Silence can be scary, sometimes lonely and it forces us to turn inward and gives us space to think. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes not.

I’m not sure when exactly this craving for noise became a craving for silence but one day there it was. At some point I realized I could no longer remember the last time I’d turned the radio on at home, or while driving. Silence no longer bothered, noise did. With me, it was mainly a writer thing. ‘How do you expect me to listen to those voices in my head with all that racket?’ So, that’s what they mean by “I can’t hear myself think!” I started noticing how much more relaxed I was when things were quiet. I started noticing that quiet brought with it feelings of serenity, peace and relaxation.

All well and good, at home where you can turn the TV, radio or your iPod on or off as the fancy takes you but it’s another thing in the public sphere. No one thinks it unreasonable. We’ve recognized the right not to have cigarette smoke blown into our faces. There are laws against that, so why does the commercial world seem to think it has every right to indulge in acoustic abuse. They just don’t let up, do they? It’s that insidious worm – Muzak. It’s everywhere. Shops, the mall, pool changing rooms restaurants and cafes.

At first, I just suffered without a word. I didn’t like to ask. British reserve and embarrassment, I guess. I mean, isn’t it grumpy old crankies who don’t want the music on? Music is cool. Not so cool to want it off. There are times I’d like to do the writer with laptop in café thing but so far every local café has told me they’re not allowed to turn off the music, even if you’re the only customer. “Company Policy,” they tell me. “We can turn it down but we can’t turn it off. Sorry.”

One waitress confessed, “I’d love to turn it off but if management found out I’ll be in trouble.” The pool is the only Muzak free zone I can think of, but I’ll pass on taking my laptop for a swim. Perhaps, one day, I’ll start a campaign for freedom from forced music in public places but until then me and my laptop stay home.
As I finish writing this, it’s almost time to start my Shabbat cooking. I’ll be listening to Shabbat by The Family Wach while I chop, slice and stir. Here’s a taste.

Did I say I didn’t like music? Oh no. There’s a time for everything.