The ProsenPeople

New Kids' Cookbook Has a Story to Tell

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Miri Pomerantz-Dauber

"A fun book for family sharing" is the description on the back cover of Jewish Fairy Tale Feasts (Crocodile Books USA, 2013), and, looking through the book, it really is! The book, which features Jewish folktales paired with a corresponding recipe and beautiful illustrations, is intended for children ages 5-11, but it crosses generations in a way that is unusual—both the stories and the recipes will appeal to adults and kids equally. The project is a collaboration between the mother-daughter team of master storyteller Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple, the cook behind the book's recipes, with illustrations by Sima Elizabeth Shefrin. 

Here's a little taste from the Main Course section of the book, reprinted with permission: 


The Pomegranate Seed

“May it be Your will, O Lord our God, that our good deeds will increase like the seeds of the pomegranate.”


A hungry Jew, whose family was starving, stole a loaf of bread from the market. But as soon as he slipped the loaf into the waistband of his trousers, the stall owner began to shriek, “Thief! Thief!”

The man began to run, but he was no better at running than he was at stealing. Within three or four steps he felt the heavy hands of the sultan’s guards on his shoulder.

They marched him off to prison, where in the near dark of his cell he found a single pomegranate seed on the dirt floor.

“Why is the Lord plaguing me?” he thought. “Here I am about to be executed for stealing a loaf of bread so that my children would not starve, and He sends me a pomegranate seed.”

But, since the rabbis always said, “The Lord does not toy with us,” he gave that seed much thought.

When the guards brought him out to the open courtyard for his execution, the Jew was ready. He turned his face up to the executioner and spoke so loudly, everyone—including the sultan, himself—could hear, “Kill me as you must, but do not throw away my magic pomegranate seed.”

“What nonsense is this?” growled the executioner.

“Not nonsense at all. If you plant it, it will grow instantly into a great pomegranate tree, laden with ripe fruit. But …” the Jew shrugged.

“But what?” The executioner lowered his axe and leaned forward.

“The seed will only grow if you have never stolen anything. So you see, it is useless to me now.”

The executioner trembled. “I have taken things from the pockets of those I have executed, instead of giving it to their heirs. I cannot plant the seed.”

The Jew held up the seed to the guards. “Is there one among you who can plant the seed?”

The guards conferred amongst themselves. Finally, one came forward. “We have each taken golden spoons from the sultan’s table. We cannot plant the seed.”

The thief turned to the sultan’s vizier. “And you, mighty sir?”

The vizier trembled. “I have … um … occasionally pocketed coins from the sultan’s treasury. Ummmm … coins owed to me.” He looked quickly down at the ground.

“Then, magnificent sultan, it is up to you to plant the seed,” the Jew said.

The sultan smiled. “And haven’t I taken entire countries from other sultans? I doubt I could plant that seed.”

“Oh mighty and powerful people, you have taken trinkets, coins, golden spoons, entire countries, and still retain your high status and wealth. And here am I, a poor Jew, who only wanted to feed his starving children. Yet you will live and I will die.”

The sultan laughed. “What a clever man you are. I need someone like you around to remind me how a life can be saved by a simple pomegranate seed.” He made the Jew a royal gardener and moved his family into the palace, where they never went hungry again.

We found four versions of this story: in Peninnah Schram’s The Hungry Clothes and Other Jewish Folktales, as “The Pomegranate Seed”; in Sheldon Oberman’s Solomon and the Ant and Other Jewish Stories, as “The Magic Seed”; in Nathan Ausubel’s A Treasury of Jewish Folklore, as “The Wise Rogue”; and in Barbara Diamond Goldin’s A Child’s Book of Midrash, as “The Clever Thief.”

This story is originally from Morocco, but stories about Jews (and Arabs) who manage by cleverness to get themselves out of impossible situations are quite popular throughout the Middle East.

In some tellings, the thief is Jewish, in others he is not. But the story is a popular one amongst Middle Eastern Jews.

This is Tale Type 929—“Clever Defenses” and K 500—“Escape from Arrest by Trickery.”


Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Stuart Nadler

Tuesday, March 12, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this month, JBC announced the five fiction finalists for this year's $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. The authors are as diverse as the books themselves, so, here at the ProsenPeople, we thought we'd give you the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the 2013 Rohr contenders. We asked each author a few questions about writing, their Rohr finalist book, favorite books, and, of course, what's up next for them. Today we hear from Stuart Nadler, author of the short story collection The Book of Life. Stuart actually just published his debut novel, Wise Men, so if you haven't had time to read it, go on out and grab yourself a copy. 

No stranger to the Jewish Book Council, in 2011, Stuart blogged for our Visiting Scribe series, was interviewed for our Emerging Voices column, and participated in a #JLit Twitter Book Club.  If that wasn't enough, JBC reviewer Phil Sandick stated that:

With [The Book of Life], Nadler firmly establishes himself within the tradition of short story writers such as John Cheever and Richard Ford, and announces himself as a promising voice in contemporary fiction.

Below, Stuart discusses the books of his youth, writing without internet, and his love for the short story:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

Everything about writing is a challenge. Writing fiction is that rare task in which practice and repetition and some perceived confidence only seem to make it harder to do well.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I’ve always wanted to write. When I was young––maybe seven or eight––I got as a gift a set of classic novels simplified for children. These were the first books I ever really loved. Most of them were adventure stories: Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine. Ever since then I’ve wanted to write.

Who is your intended audience?

I’m not sure if I have an intended audience in mind when I work. The best and most surprising thing about writing a book is that it goes out into the world, and you never know who might pick it up and read it and find a connection in the work.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’ve just published a new novel called Wise Men. Apart from that, I’m in the middle of two projects. Both of them are novels––or at least, right now they are.

What are you reading now?

I’ve just started Richard Ford’s Canada, and so far it’s terrific.

Top 5 Favorite Books

This is impossible to do, but here are five books I love:

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I’ve always wanted to write, as long as I can remember.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

If there is a mountaintop, I would hope, simply, that it means that I’ve had the opportunity to keep working and writing.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I’ve shed just about all the superstitions and limits and quotas and page-limits that I used to toy with and try. I prefer to write early, and often. I write on a computer without any internet access, and although it never used to be this way, increasingly I write in silence, without music on in the background. And I always leave myself a hint for the next day’s work.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

Although I’m writing another novel now, I’d love it if people read The Book of Life and sought out more short fiction because of it. I love the short story. It’s a beautiful art form and one that I think is under appreciated. That’s what I would love.

Stuart Nadler is a recipient of the 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship, he was also the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of Wise Men, and the story collection The Book of Life

Religious Political Power in Israel Comes to a Halt

Monday, March 11, 2013 | Permalink
Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin are the co-authors of the new book The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation. They will be blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Today, Yuval Elizur takes a look at religious political power in Israel and January's elections.

For many years the political power of Israel's Orthodox minority spread as if it would never reach a limit. While their number of seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, remained small in relation to their power and also remarkably stable, the Orthodox rabbis and their political representatives influenced government policy by offering to vote as a bloc to sustain any ruling coalition. There was a price, of course: exemption from military service and subsidies for strict religious education and the welfare of the yeshiva students. These and their other favorite projects expanded after each election campaign. No wonder that an increasing number of Israeli intellectuals, including a noted sociology professor at Hebrew University, warned that Israel might soon become a theocratic state not unlike Iran.

But finally came a pushback in the decades-long battle between State and Synagogue. The results of this January’s elections proved that a good part of the political strength of the Orthodox may have been a myth. It finally may be receding toward a reality more representative of Israeli society, which is predominantly secular in practice although committed to Judaism as a religion.

It all began in 1948 during the first Israeli government when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion excused a mere 400 Orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army and ceded to the rabbinical courts total jurisdiction over marriage and divorce of Jewish women in the new state. This set the pattern for the small religious parties’ clever manipulation of the ruling parties, which needed their parliamentary votes to hold power –whether the leftist Labor governments of the early days of the state or the rightist governments of recent years.

To the surprise of many Israelis, the elections demonstrated that religious parties can be a serious political liability and no longer an asset purchased by budgets and political concessions. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu they have become a menacing factor that are literally stuck in his throat as he struggles to form a new coalition. For more than a month since the January 22nd elections, the leader of Israel's largest political party, Halikud Beitenu, has been unable to form a government without antagonizing the religious parties. According to Israeli law, Netanyahu has until mid-March to form a government. If he can’t, President Shimon Peres must declare new elections.

Trying to work out deals under this sword of Damocles, it seems likely that Netanyahu will somehow succeed in forming a government with or without the votes of the religious parties. Yet there is a lesson to be learned from the present debacle: The political leverage of the religious parties has been dramatically reduced. From now on, both right- and left-wing leaders will try to form governments on their own from the nation’s handful of parties and perhaps even reform Israel's political system without the need to depend on the support of the religious parties by kowtowing to them.

Let one thing be clear: all this political maneuvering has very little to do with the influence of religion on life in Israel. That will continue to be substantial. Even with the religious parties in the opposition, Israel will be still a country where most yeshiva students will not serve in the army, the Sabbath will be an officially enforced day of rest, and only kosher food will still be served in the army. There will still be rabbinical marriages although civil marriages may finally be possible through a series of interim arrangements.

But whatever the shape – and stability – of the ruling coalition that finally emerges, the veto power of the rabbis has been blunted and may finally be broken.

Yuval Elizur is a sixth generation Israeli, living in Jerusalem. The author of several books, he is a former deputy editor and economics reporter for Israel’s largest daily newspaper Ma’ariv, and has served as a Jerusalem correspondent for The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. A veteran of two wars, he was the Columbia School of Journalism’s first Israeli graduate.

2013 Children's Passover Favorites: New and Old

Monday, March 11, 2013 | Permalink

JBC children's editor Michal Malen compiled a list of children's Passover books below, including new and recent titles, as well as older favorites. Feel free to comment and let us know your own favorite Passover books for children!

Recently Published

Older Favorites


Book Cover of the Week: The Slippage

Friday, March 08, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Not only does Ben Greenman have a great cover for his newest book, The Slippage: A Novel (pubbing from Harper Perennial on April 23rd), but an awesome website to boot. Spend some time catching up on all things Ben Greenman over there until you can get your hands on this beauty (and, just a guess, but I imagine the contents will give the cover a run for its money):

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.


Why I Put a Map in The Bronfman Haggadah

Friday, March 08, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, artist Jan Aronson wrote about how she became an illustrator and her illustrations for The Bronfman Haggadah. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Many people have asked why I included a biblical map in The Bronfman Haggadah. Well, for starters, I love maps and I guess I assume that other people love them as well.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time poring over maps. Growing up in New Orleans, maps helped me figure out where I was in relation to the world. I wanted to know, for instance, where I was in relation to Europe. Where was Paris?

I also loved the colors of maps, as maps are very beautiful. Indeed, I think they are beautiful for a reason: so that we may enjoy and admire them as we investigate the world and place ourselves within a certain universe.

For that reason, I thought it would be useful and important to be able to turn to a page in the Haggadah and see the part of the world that we're talking about. I also realized that I’d never seen a map in a Haggadah—and I have looked at countless illustrated Haggadot. And so, I decided that a map would indeed be a very interesting, unique, and informative detail.

This led to many days of research about biblical geography, and that’s when things got complicated. There’s an open-endedness about our story and it is nearly impossible to pinpoint specifics. It turns out that there are five possible sites for Mount Sinai, and there are at least three possible routes taken by the Jews—there were established trade routes, important cities flourishing, and various tribes settled among the land.

I know that I am not alone in loving maps, so I hope that including one in The Bronfman Haggadah will not only entertain and inform readers, but also open their eyes to a new aspect of the Passover story.

Visit Jan Aronson's official website here.

The Best Place on Earth

Friday, March 08, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Nancy Richler discussed the perspective of her novel The Imposter Bride and why she decided to forgo research. She has been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

A few weeks ago I was asked to provide a blurb for an about-to-be-published collection of short stories, The Best Place on Earth, by a young Israeli born writer named Ayelet Tsabari. Set against a backdrop of war, conflict and the army service, with underlying themes of displacement, the quest for ‘home,’ love and loss, the stories in this collection pulse with raw energy as they unfurl along the fault lines within Israeli society. The author stretches herself to write from a broad variety of perspectives, and while not every story works perfectly she captures the particular intensity, urgency and ambivalence of the young Israelis she depicts, and there is a compelling urgency to each of the stories and to the collection as a whole that reflects the multifaceted society she brings to life.

Tsabari is an Israeli of Yemeni descent, and her stories are all told from the perspective of Mizrahi Israelis. I realized as I was reading it how rarely I have seen that sector of Israeli society represented in fiction and how hungry I am for more fiction about the lives of non-Ashkenazi Israelis. A recent visit to Ethiopia intensified that interest, so if anyone can recommend fiction by Mizrahi and/or Ethiopian Israelis that has been translated into English I would really appreciate it. (I wish I didn’t have to rely on English translations or books written in English as Tsabari’s is but, alas, my Hebrew is not up to the task) You can write to me at

Comment below to let us know which books you would recommend! Find out more about Nancy here.

New Reviews

Friday, March 08, 2013 | Permalink

This week's reviews:



How I Became an Illustrator

Wednesday, March 06, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, artist Jan Aronson wrote about her illustrations for The Bronfman Haggadah. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

When Edgar asked me to illustrate the text of The Bronfman Haggadah, which at that point he had been writing for several years, my first response was: “But I’m not an illustrator!”

“Good. I don’t want an illustrator. I want you to do it,” was his swift reply.

And so began a project that was the opportunity of a lifetime.  An artist does not often get the chance to have complete and full creative freedom to do what they want with something that is so meaningful—both in a personal and spiritual sense.

Not once was there anyone looking over my shoulder trying to edit what I was doing. Certainly not Edgar or even Rizzoli, the publisher.

This project was a chance to actually branch out and use all of my creative juices. And it was a wonderful, wonderful thing to do at this point in my life as an artist. I’ve spent many years in my studio alone creating various bodies of work, so to finally have the opportunity to collaborate—with my husband no less—was a tremendous joy.

Looking back, Edgar’s request was truly a blessing in disguise. For an artist, the biggest challenges often yield work of a totally unforeseen—and remarkable—quality. I was continuously striving to present the material in the most stimulating ways possible. How would I keep adults interested? How do I encourage the children, who would be at the table for their first and tenth times alike, to open the Haggadah and to look forward to turning the page?

My new inhabitance of the mind of an illustrator was, as it turned out, something of a metamorphosis. It changed the way that I approached my art, the way I perceived the art world, and the way I presented my work.

Visit Jan Aronson's official website here.

Deciding to Forgo Research

Wednesday, March 06, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Nancy Richler discussed the perspective of her novel The Imposter Bride. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week. 

One of the great pleasures of writing for me is researching historical events and details that help me understand and more fully realize the lived experience of my characters. The research I did for my second novel, Your Mouth is Lovely, for example, opened up a world to me—that of early 20th century life in the villages and prisons of the Russian Pale of Settlement—that I had previously only encountered filtered through the imaginations of the great fiction writers of that era. For my most recent novel, however, I decided not to do to any formal research. The Imposter Bride is set in the Jewish community of Montreal in the years immediately following the Second World War. It is told from the perspective of a young woman named Ruthie who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. I wanted to stay true to the knowledge Ruthie would have had at that time—the 1950’s and early 60’s—both within her own family and within the larger Jewish community, rather than superimpose onto her narrative the knowledge that we now have about the Holocaust. I wanted to convey what it was like to be a child—as I myself was—at a time when the truth of what had happened to many of the adults in the community was just slowly beginning to emerge.

In the years immediately following the war the details about what had happened in Europe were not widely discussed and taught as they are today. The refugees coming over from Europe faced a wide variety of reactions, including compassion, of course, but also aversion, a certain condescension and varying degrees of ignorance. What had happened during the Holocaust was not yet taught in schools, and was not written down in history books, nor did the adult survivors who lived among us expressly articulate what they had experienced. The truth of what happened in Europe was revealed to us slowly and often indirectly, through behaviors, the lingering fears and reactions that we witnessed, the tattooed numbers that we could see on the arms of some of our teachers and parents, and only the occasional verbal comment or description. It was Ruthie’s experience of that time that I wanted to convey and to do that I relied on my own memories of that era and those of my siblings, friends and cousins, rather than doing formal research about the facts of the time.

Find out more about Nancy here.