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Book Cover of the Week: Eden

Tuesday, August 30, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yael Hedaya, a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her novel Accidentsis a favorite here at the JBC. For one thing, she has written some incredible books, and for another, she is one of the screenwriters of the original, Israeli version of In Treatment.  On top of all that, she’s had some great book covers.

Exhibit A:


Exhibit B:


Exhibit C:


And, now, time for the latest. The paperback edition of her most recently translated novel, Eden, which is due out on Sept 27th from Picador:


A Funny Thing Happened — True Story!

Monday, August 29, 2011 | Permalink

Wayne Hoffman‘s most recent book, Sweet Like Sugar, is now available. Hoffman is  the deputy editor of Nextbook Press and will be blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's Visiting Scribe.

My mother has always been a great storyteller: In recounting any anecdote, she knows exactly which details to leave out and which ones to exaggerate for maximum impact. She has a keen sense of the ridiculous. Plus she’s got impeccable timing. Meet her for the first time or the hundredth time, and she’ll launch into a story that’ll have you laughing in thirty seconds.

Okay, maybe that makes her more of a stand-up comedian than a storyteller. But we’re Jews. It’s a fine line.

With her excellent sense of what makes a story compelling, she’s always on the lookout for her son-the-writer. “Here’s something you could write about,” she’ll tell me as she launches into a new bit, almost begging me to steal her material. Or, after I tell her something she finds particularly amusing, she’ll advise me: “You should write a book about that!”

If I wrote a book about everything my mother thinks is book-worthy, I’d have a very busy literary agent. But the truth is, the things I find fascinating or hilarious for a few seconds would rarely retain my interest for an entire book, while the events that inspire me to write a novel aren’t always neat and self-contained anecdotes.

An example:

Several years ago, I was working as managing editor at the Forward, an English-language Jewish newspaper. We shared space with the legendary Forverts, our sister newspaper, published in Yiddish. One day, an editor from the Forvertscame into my office and asked if one of his employees could rest on my couch. I looked up and saw a man behind him, holding himself up against the wall. He had a full gray beard, thinning hair and spectacles and a yarmulke on his head, and I figured he was somewhere past his 80th birthday.

I didn’t know him, didn’t know his name, and didn’t even know if he spoke English – not everyone at the Forverts did. But he was very ill and clearly needed to lie down, and my office had the only couch in the newsroom, so I said yes. He came in, kicked off his shoes, and lay down on my couch without a word.

Every few minutes, one of my reporters would walk into my office to ask me a question or complain about something. (That’s what managing editors are for.) I’d hold up a finger to shush them, and then point at the couch. They’d give me a confused look – they didn’t recognize this man either – but they’d back out and leave him in peace.

Periodically, I’d look over at him as he lay there, snoring or moaning or mumbling, and I’d be amazed that the two of us were sharing this space, even temporarily. I wondered what we could possibly have in common – an elderly Orthodox man who spoke Yiddish, and a (relatively) young, gay, secular Jew who was more comfortable in Spanish. If he woke up, what would we say to each other? What could we say to each other?

There’s no great ending to this scene, no punch line; eventually the old man got off the couch and went back to work. But that afternoon started the gears turning, and eventually inspired the opening scene of Sweet Like Sugar. It’s not what happened that captured my imagination. It’s what might have happened that drove me to spend the next few years writing the novel.

Plenty of other fascinating things happened in that office. There was the night an unmarked package that was ticking arrived in the newsroom, and I was the designated person to deal with it. (“I’m running toward the bomb as fast as I can,” I assured my boss when he got on my case. Don’t worry, it wasn’t a bomb, but an ill-advised promotional toy from the NBA.) There was the time we sat around trying to come up with the most outrageous headlines for a story about an elderly Yiddish poetess who’d started writing erotica. (Most of them were too bawdy to mention, but I’ll include my favorite headline-that-dared-not-be-printed: “Oy, Me So Horny.”) There were all the wonderful typos that made it into print despite our best efforts – including an error that turned the title of a show about Golda Meir from Golda’s Balcony into Golda’s Baloney, which has a very different ring.

Those are all great stories. I tell them all the time. But I’m not going to write a book about them, no matter what my mother thinks.

Wayne Hoffman is the author of Sweet Like Sugar and Hard, and the editor of What We Brought Back: Jewish Life After Birthright- Reflections by Alumni of Taglit-Birthright Israel Trips. He is currently touring as a part of the Jewish Book Network. For more information on booking Wayne, please contact jbc@jewishbooks.org.

Maus-iversary

Monday, August 29, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Alyssa Berlin

There are very few books that I have read more than once. Maus: A Survivor’s Tale is one of the few that I have wanted to pick up again and again. Every time I’ve gone back to it, either to reference for school or as a personal refresher, I’ve found myself sitting for hours on end rereading the entire book from beginning to end.

This summer marks the 25th anniversary of Maus, which, for those who don’t know, is a graphic novel that revolutionized the way people thought and read about the Holocaust. It has graced our bookshelves for a quarter of a century, and has impacted many of our lives.

In October, Art Spiegelman will publish  MetaMaus, which will take readers on a  journey inside the modern classic. MetaMaus describes Spiegelman’s thought process behind Maus, his failures and successes, and gets to the bottom of why exactly he chose to publish his father’s story as a graphic novel. Each page is more beautiful than the next , with pictures of his original sketches, family photos and mementos from the whole process. Included with the book is a hyper linked DVD of Maus with an in-depth archive of audio interviews with his father, photos, notebooks, drawings, essays and more which add even more to the richness of this book.

The book comes out on October 4th, so if you have a chance pick it up, I promise that you’ll find yourself as engrossed in it as your were in Maus.

Pro-Israel? Anti-Israel? No, Just Israel.

Friday, August 26, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith and about what we believe. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Last week, the American Jewish Committee renounced a statement made by one of its staffers. The AJC’s Director on Anti-Semitism suggested that some Israel supporters are distorting the 1964 Civil Rights Act when they argue that colleges – that hire anti-Israel professors and support anti-Israel rallies – are in violation of the law. The Director said that the Israel supporters went too far.

I am a college professor and a Jew – and a supporter of the State of Israel –  but the issue is too complicated for me to address directly, with anything like authority. But it did remind me — as it probably does you — of dealings I’ve had with relatives. The issue is too divisive to leave many Jewish families untouched.

In my case, I have relatives who will brook no criticism of any Israeli government.  (And I’m sure they’d complain that I criticize Israel too quickly.)

I feel passionately about it. I have argued that current Likud policies are unjust and what’s more – though I don’t think there shouldn’t need to be a “what’s more” – strategically bad for Israel. For this criticism I’ve been asked: “Why do you hate Israel?” “Why are you a self-hating Jew.” Neither of these things is true about me: I don’t hate Israel and I’m not a self-hating Jew. (Well, there are things about myself I dislike, but Judaism isn’t among them.) The point isn’t just that any disapproval of Israel over any issue is taken for anti-Semitism; it’s that both sides are so emotional, and disagree so heartily about this when they agree on most other things.

As for me, I understand why my arguments drive my relatives crazy. The reasons are clear. 1) The other side is worse; Arab nations and the more radical Islamists among them are unreasonable, and frightening, and undoubtedly behave worse than Israel does. 2) There is a disproportionate response in world opinion; Israel is condemned for every misdemeanor it commits, while much more serious violator nations face no public opprobrium, at all. The reason seems to be anti-Semitism. 3) Israel has been attacked by belligerent neighbors and so needs the support of its supporters at all times.

These are all true. But it’s equally true that Israeli supporters in the U.S. often have a hard time admitting that hardships were suffered by Arabs during the 1948 War of Independence: that the Palestinian grievance is real. (Ironically, Israelis have come to terms with this – and are more honest about it – than we Americans are. Read any of the Israeli “New Historians.”) And it’s also true that, on the settlements issue, there is a lot of room for disagreement. Being critical of a particular government’s particular policy does not equal abandonment.

Again, I know the other side would disagree and call me naive. What strikes me is that, if we can’t agree among ourselves about it — if American, pro-Israel Jews are so divided — is it any wonder that the problem has persisted for over 50 years?

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy

JLit Links

Friday, August 26, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

What We Believe

Wednesday, August 24, 2011 | Permalink

On Monday, Darin Strauss wrote about wrestling with faith.

I’ve done an informal poll — I admit, it’s very informal — among Jews I know: What do we believe? A pretty fundamental question, right? And yet there is no consensus of belief, even regarding the most bedrock principles of faith.

What’s more, this belief discrepancy doesn’t exist just between our religion’s big three wings (between ReformConservativeOrthodox); it exists within them, too. Ask a few observant Jews what happens to us after we die.

Some will say: “We sit at the hand of G-d — and the closer we are to Him, the more kindly we had been on Earth.”

Some will say: “We live on, in the memories of our friends.”

Some will say—and these are people who believe, as Madonna does, in the Kabbalah — that there are seven actual heavens.

This sort divergence existed among us even in olden times, well before we’d split into our three current camps. In the Second Temple Era, the Pharisees believed in bodily resurrection for the dead, while the Essenes believed that the soul itself is immortal. And the Sadducees — an old sect I had never before heard of — believed, apparently, in neither: Not in an immortal soul, nor in any afterlife. (Maybe that’s why they had “sad” in their name.)

Another point of eternal Jewish dispute is the MessiahMaimonides wrote a commentary that argued for a non-mystical messiah:

Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living…

Don’t you love the modern sound of that? You can hear the blustery uncle at a 21st-century seder table in that last bit, the “very easy for people to make a living” part. (Maybe, like my uncle, Maimonides had a Garment Center guy who could get him a nice suit for a good price.)

I don’t write this to be disrespectful. I think it’s a wonderful fact about Judaism — at least about the approach to Judaism I most relate to: there are no universal answers, we don’t have it all figured out, G-d is unknowable.

I wonder: Is this uncertainty, this lack of knowledge we have about the thing that is so central to so many other faiths? Is it because so many of us spent so many of the last 2,000 years forgetting Hebrew? Praying in a language a lot of us could phonetically sound out but not fully understand?


Photo by Robert Birnbaum

That is probably too simplistic; certainly the most devout among us — certainly a Maimonides — spoke and understood Hebrew fluently. But how many American Jews, say, actually speak Hebrew with real understanding — how many understand all the words to all the prayers?

Moreover, how many subscribers to such “hip Jew” publications as Heeb and Jewcy have a real textual understanding of the religion with which they so identify? These are unanswerable questions. But compare all this Jewish uncertainty with the inflexible sureness of evangelical Christians (not to mention fundamentalist Muslims). This is, paradoxically, why I know I feel a kinship with Judaism that goes beyond the cultural and familial bonds I have with the faith: the not-knowing.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoyHe will be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Book Cover of the Week: My Russian Grandmother and Her American...

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

National Jewish Book Award Winner Meir Shalev has a memoir coming out on October 4th (translated by NETWORK author Evan Fallenberg):


JBC Bookshelf: Fall Nonfiction

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This fall brings not only a bounty of fiction, but a bounty of nonfiction, as well. This edition of “JBC Bookshelf” offers memoirs, a “biography,” and humor, taking us from Israel to Egypt to France (keeping with the “travel” trend). Many of the below titles will be reviewed in our fall or winter issue of Jewish Book World, so be on the look out for more about each of them. And, while we love bringing you fall book treats, we also have another (literary) treat in store for you…stay tuned…

Jerusalem: The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore (October 2011, Knopf)
Watch Simon Sebag Montefiore talk about Jerusalem with the BBC here.

The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irene Nemirovsky by her Daughter, Elisabeth Gille; Marina Harss, trans. (September 2011, NYRB Classics)
Have you read Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise?

Bad for the Jews, Scott Sherman (August 2011, St. Martin’s Griffin)
Fun Fact: Scott Sherman writes for The Colbert Report.

The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn, Lucette Lagnado (September 2011, Ecco)
Lucette Lagnado won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her Memoir The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World .

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir, Meir Shalev; Evan Fallenberg, trans. (October 2011, Schocken)
Meir Shalev won the 2007 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction for A Pigeon and a Boy.

  

Darin Strauss on Faith

Monday, August 22, 2011 | Permalink

Darin Strauss’s most recent book, Half a Life: A Memoir, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Faith is a private issue. At least, I consider it to be one. (Try telling that to Tea Party evangelicals, though…) I consider myself a Jewish writer—even if my characters frequently are not Jewish—in the same way, I guess, that I consider myself a Jewish man, even though I don’t often attend shul.

In another post I’ll talk about my books (particularly Chang & Enga novel about the famous and Asian conjoined twins, and Half a Lifemy non-fiction book about me). Here, today, I want to discuss faith.

I felt sheepish this week when I admitted to someone that I pray each night. My prayer is improvised—though like some standard jazz performance, the improv happens within pretty strict parameters—and asks for nothing. It wasn’t always this way.

prayed every night for as long as I can remember—at least since my Israel bar-mitzvah some 27 years ago. But until recently I would ask G-d  for favors. Nothing extravagant, nor even of a material nature. But my prayer was a homemade mix of thanks and request. I didn’t use a standard, Jewish prayer-book prayer because 1) I don’t speak Hebrew, and 2) it seems to me that if one doesn’t know the meaning of what one is saying, that ignorance is an impenetrable barrier between oneself and G-d. Now, I could’ve learned Hebrew, sure. But it seemed (and I’ll admit this may have been my laziness) that talking to G-d directly was a better way of expressing my own personal feelings of belief and appeal and doubt and gratitude.

But recently, as my own comprehension of my faith increased, I realized there was much I didn’t believe. Or, not that I didn’t believe, exactly, but that I had serious doubts about a few things. For example, it struck me as unlikely that G-d involves Himself with the daily minutiae of every single life on the planet. That an omnipotent creator of life would find himself shackled with that duty seemed improbable—it struck me as beneath Him. Also, how to explain the conflicting nature of some prayers? E.g., What to do when a million people pray for one thing, and another million its opposite? And what about not only the Holocaust, but every year’s untold tsunami and earthquake victims? Hadn’t they prayed? And sick children—etc.

All the same, I believe in G-d, and also that Judaism is closest to what my conception of G-d is—not to mention I have a steep cultural attachment to this religion and her people. And so I decided to keep on praying, but just not to ask G-d for anything. The thing is, I truly am profoundly thankful to G-d for all the blessings I have received in my life, beginning with the gift of Life itself. Now, whether my not asking for good things to happen to me is subconsciously intended to win me brownie points with G-d is something I can’t answer. But I do feel the need to give thanks, and also not to feel hypocritical by asking for things when I have doubts that G-d would answer me.

That is not to say I haven’t broken my little rule; that I haven’t taken up the mantle of hypocrisy now and again. But I do so for my 3-year-old son. (He has been diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and I have prayed, and will continue to pray, for his health and comfort.) It seems to me a little hypocrisy in the service of fatherhood may get a bit of a divine pass.  But who knows.

This homemade ritual feels right for me; I’m not saying anyone else should embrace it.  I hope others would give me the same wide faith devotional birth.

Darin Strauss is the author of Half a LifeMore Than It Hurts YouChang and Eng, and The Real McCoy. He will be blogging here all week.

The History of People

Friday, August 19, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Douglas Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team ever and about researching Jewish sports. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

To me, history is telling stories about people. I have always been fascinated by people’s lives, the decisions they make (or don’t), and ultimately what happens to them. One of my objectives in writing The SPHAS was to have an opportunity to tell the stories of the players and, in some cases, the fans who attended the games. Who were the SPHAS? Where did they come from? Why were they attracted to basketball? Who were they as people?

As I crafted the book, I decided that I would try and tell the story of each season through one or two players. This allowed me to combine the stories of the players with the game-by-game story and drama of each season. It also proved a fairly easy way to organize the book.

One of the challenges of writing a book about a defunct basketball team whose heyday was in the 1930s and early 1940s was that most of the players had either passed away or were very old. I had two paths to take. One was to interview family members of the players from the 1930s. The second was to speak with players who played in the 1940s. Both proved invaluable.

The family members of the 1930s players were able to provide  information about who the players were as people and about their childhoods. But in many instances, they were unable to talk about the playing days. Some were too young to remember. Some maybe never asked. However, many of them had scrapbooks of articles and these proved to be a tremendous source of information. Athletes from a certain generation actively kept scrapbooks chronicling their careers. The articles, programs, and ticket stubs contain valuable information. Athletes today do not seem to have the same desire in maintaining scrapbooks.

I was also able to interview quite a few players from the 1940s, and, although they might forget some information, they all loved talking about their playing days. Their faces light up and they can recall a game 70 years ago better than what they had for dinner last week. As they talked, they were young again, playing basketball, traveling 5 or 6 in a car from one town to another, and growing the game.

They all had interesting stories to tell and seemed grateful that someone today wanted to hear their stories. It was my honor to tell their stories and I hope that I did it well.

Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available.