The ProsenPeople

Weekend Literary Link Round-Up

Monday, June 14, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Good morning JBC readers!

A little round-up to get you going this Monday AM (yawn):

NYTimes reviews Joshua Cohen’s Witz

Josh Lambert rounds up new Jewish interest books for Tablet

The New Yorker interviews their 20 under 40

NETWORK author Dennis Danziger on his NETWORK conference experience for The Huffington Post blog

Author, friend of the JBC, professor, and “On the Bookshelf” columnist for Tablet, Josh Lambert is a BIG JEWCY

Summer reading recommendation from Tamar Fox on MyJewishLearning

Summer reading roundup from the Jewish Publication Society blog

Jews in Odd Places

Monday, June 14, 2010 | Permalink

Allison Amend is the author of the novel Stations West. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

Since I’ve been touring with Stations West, there are invariably one or two people who approach me after each reading, telling me that their ancestors are from equally as improbable places: North Dakota, New Mexico, etc. What does this mean? That these are not such improbable places after all. Like other religions and ethnicities, we Jews settled everywhere, bringing our culture, tradition (and usually our peddling wagons or dry good stores) with us.

I’ve been a Jew in an unlikely place, too. I spent a year in high school living in Barcelona, Spain, which has not had a meaningful Jewish community since 1492 (though a small Sephardic community thrives still). I spent a weekend in a tiny town by the name of Olot in the Pyrenees. This was during the first Gulf War, and the U.S. Consulate recommended we not divulge our status as Americans, and warned us against telling strangers if we were Jewish. After a few days of avoiding the topic with my teenage hostess (“My family doesn’t really go to church that often,” “I guess Americans write down the family tree in the Bible,” “No, I didn’t get confirmed”.) I revealed that I was Jewish. My hostess, who, after half-jokingly (I think) asking if I had horns, thought it was the coolest thing about me, and proceeded to show me off to all her friends as a Jew. Her friends were equally as delighted by the revelation; they had always wondered what Jew would be like. Her little sister kept petting my hair and calling me “Pretty girl” in Catalan. It was an odd weekend.

More recently, I was a Jew in Lyons, France, where I taught high school. Coincidentally, I taught at the only school in the city that had no Saturday classes, and was therefore the Jewish school by default. One of my students, upon finding out I was Jewish, invited me over for Hanukkah dinner, where his Sephardic family was so different from my Ashkenazi one that I might as well have been dining on the moon. I remember thinking their tunes were all wrong.

They told me a story, which I fictionalized in my short story collection Things that Pass for Love, about their experiences during the Second World War (Lyons was in occupied France). The grandfather hid in the cabinet for the duration of the war. In 1996, the little girl’s Jewish day school was bombed, avoiding killing children only by accident. I realized, then, how lucky I was to be free of the fear of persecution that plagued them constantly.

I found out five years later that one of my best friends in France was the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, who lost his first family in the camps. She had never thought to mention it.

Allison Amend’s first novel, Stations West, is now available. Come back all week to read her posts for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Visiting Scribe.

Jewish Authors on New Yorker Author List

Friday, June 04, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The New Yorker‘s list of 20 promising fiction writers under 40 has been released (for the first time in a decade) and the list includes five Jewish authors:

Jonathan Safran Foer
Rivka Galchen
Nicole Krauss
Gary Shteyngart
David Bezmozgis

Read more on Tablet here.

A Parable for Writing

Friday, June 04, 2010 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Cohen told us how to write a book like Coney Island and about the biggest cemetery in the world. His new novel, Witz, is now available.

I’ll end this first blogging experience with a nod to a neighbor. We pass often. Each life has people like this; satellites that maintain polite orbits—especially in a city no one’s truly alone.

Such acquaintanceship is akin to blogging: Note this entry’s looseness, its casual constructions, much more familiar and less demanding than any in my novel, Witz. Also note that I don’t know you. We are passing. These words are a nod….

The neighbor’s name I don’t know either. I call her Tape Woman, and H. does and D. does, too (H. and D. are close friends).

We call her Tape Woman because she—a white woman, older—binds thin strands of black electrical tape around her head. Above a robe of layered garbage bags, her face is sectioned by lines of this adhesive, rendering her in appearance the idealized offspring of a Jewess and a zebra, or a walking-talking-to-herself Bride of Frankenstein who’s misapplied her teffilin (phylacteries).

It’s tempting to think that the number of lines wound around her face signify something: that some form of numerology, or body modification cabbala, might be involved.

Three lines of tape (above eyes, under nose, on chin) could mean one thing. Four lines (above eyes, under eyes and over nose, under nose, on chin) could represent another. I imagine hermetic wisdom, salvific messages, prophecy being communicated. Perhaps the lines of tape symbolize the pillars of the universe, according to the rabbis: prayer (tefilah), charity (tzedaka), and repentance or return (teshuvah)?

D. says passing Tape Woman on the street (Brighton Beach Ave.), or boardwalk, means two days of bad luck.

H. swears she went to school with her daughter.

So she’s crazy. And is frequently harassed and insulted, in Spanish and Russian (when she murmurs to herself, she murmurs English). But once she did something—action, a physical act—that healed me, that gave me to myself more whole and alive.

One spring afternoon, taking a break from the book, I walked the boardwalk toward Coney. Tape Woman stood on a bench, flinging out her hands in a feeding gesture. But her hands were empty and the birds, expecting a feeding, only circled and squawked.

She clenched her hands again, gripping the wind.

And then again she flung out her hands and again the birds, more maddened than me, shrieked with disappointment.

This was writing. A parable for writing.

There is no feed, there is no feeding—books being mere fantasies or lapses. I am a crazy old lady, too—all writers are and all readers are birds. And the only truth is shrieking.

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Visit his official website here.

When the Hurricane Came to New Orleans

Thursday, June 03, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Heidi Estrin, of the Book of Life podcast, spoke with Nechama Liss-Levinson, author of When the Hurricane Came to New Orleans, which won the 2009 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award (currently unpublished, but will hopefully be available soon!) last summer for the podcast series. As Heidi notes, this interview is unfortunately timely…listen to the podcast here.

Nechama is also the author of When a Grandparent Dies: A Kid’s Own Remembering Workbook for Dealing With Shiva and the Year Beyond and Remembering My Pet: A Kid’s Own Spiritual Remembering Workbook for When a Pet Dies.

2010 National Jewish Book Awards

Thursday, June 03, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Guidelines and submission forms for the 2010 National Jewish Book Awards are now available!

The forms can be found here.

This year’s deadline is October 4, 2010. If you have any questions, please e-mail me at

TODAY: Twunch and Talk

Wednesday, June 02, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Don’t miss the fourth Jewish Book Council Twunch and Talk Twitter Book Club with Jennifer Gilmore (Something Red) today at 12:30PM. Need more details/instructions? See below:

Find the Twunch and Talk at #JBCBooks and follow JBC on Twitter (@jewishbook)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010
12:30PM-1:00PM EST

We will be reading Jennifer Gilmore’s Something Red: A Novel and she will be joining our discussion for this book!

The Biggest Cemetery in the World

Wednesday, June 02, 2010 | Permalink

Yesterday, Joshua Cohen told us how to write a book like Coney Island. His new novel, Witz, is now available.

This second blogpost is about two experiences with two “cemeteries.” The first made it into my novel, Witz.

Years ago I was living in Prague — I was 21 — not quite earning a living writing articles for a Jewish newspaper about Jews in Eastern Europe. Problem was, there weren’t any Jews in Eastern Europe, besides: Russians who moved west to defraud with import-export; Hasidic emissaries from New Jersey and Brooklyn; and old people (Holocaust survivors). I was writing about the Holocaust, about the Holocaust’s legacy, approximately six decades later but for an insatiably interested public. I told an editor I needed new business cards. She suggested a new title, “Dead Jews Correspondent.”

I covered the memorials and monuments, the synagogues rebuilt after the fall of communism with money from Long Island, democratically elected governments that destroyed cemeteries — clearing land for hockey stadiums and hospitals.

One day a man I’d interviewed for an article about Holocaust survivors and healthcare — a very kind and understandably strange man who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and who offered me tea and his granddaughter’s email address — died. I went the next afternoon to his funeral; then, on the way out of the cemetery, stopped by the grave of Franz Kafka. Why not? This is what you do when you’re at the New Jewish Cemetery at Želivského.

I stood facing the grave and read the inscription — the headstone is not the original; the original is rumored to have been stolen and sold to the West by Czechoslovak communist functionaries and remains lost to this day — I noted the plaque that memorialized Kafka’s three sisters (Gabriela, Valerie, Otilie), who died in the camps. I can’t remember any thoughts — I’ve never had a thought in a cemetery.

After a moment an Asian tourist approached the grave and stood alongside me snapping photos. Then without saying a word he handed me something plastic and white.

He said, in English, “For head.”

He was making me wear a yarmulke.

He touched his head, touched my head.

I’d already taken my yarmulke off, stuffed it in a pocket.

I felt like explaining that I was a Cohen — of the caste of priests, who must keep pure for future service in the rebuilt Temple. Forget not wearing a yarmulke, my biggest transgression was being in a cemetery at all. I was being defiled, technically speaking. I wanted to yell at him, “I am being defiled, technically speaking!”

I went home.

The next week I wrote a section of Witz that treats Kafka’s grave to a Kafkan fiction. A man tries to gain entrance to the cemetery that holds the grave but is prevented, at every opportunity delayed and rebuffed. I called the section “The Grave.” At the end I say the stones that mourners place atop headstones — to mark their visit, to memorialize concern — are, in effect, the yarmulkes of headstones.

Last year, back in the States, I took a bikeride on the boardwalk, from Brighton Beach to Seagate.

On the pier at Coney, a huddled group. They stood at the edge, about to empty ashes into the water.

Afterward a few hung around.

I asked a man what happened and he said his friend—the man in the urn—killed himself two weeks ago.

I didn’t ask for details but Marco said, “He was a lifeguard. He loved swimming and movies.”

He said, “The ocean is the biggest cemetery in the world.”

As I turned to leave he repeated, “Biggest cemetery in the world, biggest cemetery in the world.”

All life comes from water. And if you don’t believe science you at least believe that water was created before Man—wasn’t actually created but divided: the waters above separated from the waters below…. What was most depressing about living in Europe—in Europe’s east—was being so far from an ocean. But I disagree with Marco. Europe is the biggest cemetery in the world.

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Visit his official website here.

Network Author Makes the 10th

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 | Permalink

Sam Hoffman, author of the forthcoming Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not-So-Kosher Laughs (August, 2010), shares an anecdote about his NETWORK conference experience.

…[S]omething interesting happened to me when I went upstairs to get some air and check my emails after speaking at the NETWORK conference. There is no cell service in the basement so I was at the top of the stairs texting my wife that our much-rehearsed speech was now finished when a concerned and somewhat desperate woman approached me. She said, “can you help us, we’re only nine? We need a tenth for the minyan.” I was flustered at first, of course, because I felt a responsibility to be downstairs listening to my fellow authors. Would the sight of my empty seat somehow let them down? I stammered “I’m here with the book fair. I need to go back downstairs.” She looked beyond disappointed and went off in search of another tenth. I descended the stairs, and by the time I got to the bottom, I thought to myself, “this is crazy. There are like three hundred Jews in this room and upstairs they can’t find a tenth for a minyan?” I asked the girls outside the door if they thought I could be excused for 15 minutes and ran back upstairs. I found the woman searching the halls and announced “I can do it! They said it was ok!” Her whole demeanor changed, like her faith in humanity had somehow been restored. I grabbed a yarmulke and joined the service. Eight grateful Jews and a Rabbi nodded their thanks to me and, quite frankly, I was embarrassed by their gratitude. Most of them just wanted to say Kaddish.

Visit Hoffman’s website at

Writing a Book Like Coney Island…

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 | Permalink

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

So it’s summer again—or almost. The calendar only belatedly confirms what the bare arms and legs knew weeks earlier. But I’m writing this inside—I’ve been inside too much lately.

I live in southern Brooklyn, 11235—Brighton Beach, on a beach block—and from my window can glimpse about an inch, an inch and a half, of brackish water. I say “water” because it’s not ocean, it’s the bay. Another misconception? People come to the beach, spread their blankets, point to the land just across from them, rising from the murk of Lower Bay, and say, “Look at Staten Island.”

They’re looking at New Jersey.

People. Summers in the Seagate-Coney Island-Brighton Beach-Manhattan Beach nexus mean crowds. Half of the city making its Q Train way to my beach come Saturday AM. Bringing their foods, their beers, and so their trash. Their ethnic radio: bulletins in Russian, Turkish, Hindi, Urdu. Also bulletins in English. And the many jellyfish they leave behind—the used condoms in every color and design (ribbed jellyfish; tickler jellyfish; that most beautiful but tacky species of condom that glows in the dark, which brings to mind a favorite term from high school biology, “bioluminescence”).

Summer serves even to relocalize the locals: by June characters who’d spent September through May shut-in, emerge, taking a brief vacation from their televisions and neuroses.

As for me, I turn thirty in September. That was a difficult sentence to write. I still think of summers as breaks from school: as recess. I’m thinking already, “I better not be assigned a class with Mrs. Falk” (but Mrs. Falk must be retired by now; hopefully her straight blonde wig’s retired, too).

My novel, Witz, was published in May. It is my third novel—after Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto, and A Heaven of Others—by far my longest, most ambitious. But it’s only now that the work’s begun—the work of talking about it, of writing about it; it’s a job for a shadchan (a matchmaker), or a masochist. I’m going to write two more of these ruminations for you—about literature and incipient summer, about the lives of both in Brooklyn South.

Witz is the story of the Last Jew in the World. And, given its terminal theme, it attempts to be something of a terminal text: a Jewish book that, if it doesn’t end all Jewish books, at least ends certain recent trends of Jewish bookery. It saysdayeinu—“enough”—to kitsch, to Holocaust revisionism, to Europe.

When I think about what inspired this book, what made this book—what this book both springs from and reacts to—I think of every Jewish book ever written: Abravanel’s to Zweig’s. But I also think of the Brooklyn beach. Witz is 800 pages long, long on words in a dozen languages. Reading to the end is like riding the subway to Coney; the terminus, the end of the line—you have to have patience; understand that the ride becomes the destination. Come over the bridge—Liberty and Ellis Island to your right—pass under that half of Brooklyn that’s only Manhattan’s dimmer reflection, then surface for the midlands of Midwood, the oxidized service yards and factory ruins. Soon the wind salted by waves, the jingling of games like the creaks of bolts on an unserviced amusement, the swirling lights that signify as half fun, half siren…. I want Witz to compel in that way, to demand that commitment—to attract people from citified comforts to a place, a timeplace, whose sentimentality contains its own criticism: Because it’s forgotten for Manhattan’s winter, there is crime down here, and grime, and there are lunatics. I wanted to write a book that, being seclused, turned readers—visitors—into archaeologists and hedonists, kids. I wanted to write a book that was like Coney Island….

Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog series. Visit his official website here.