The ProsenPeople

When a Story is Born Form First

Monday, November 19, 2012 | Permalink

Tehila Lieberman is the author of the short story collection Venus in the Afternoon. She is currently completing a novel entitled "The Last Holy Man". She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Most of my stories begin with an image or a line that arrives whole and I follow it into the dark, as if with a headlamp and supplies for a long trek, seeking to illuminate what lies in front of it, to the sides, or in the way of back story, behind.

But two stories announced their form first. One of these was "Cul de Sac," which came to me as a theme with several variations. I imagined it as a collection of stories that loosely shared a theme, only in miniature, and envisioned these miniature narratives all woven into one short story. The relationships between the characters and the various story lines, which involved betrayal and loss, would emerge with the writing. Instead of bridges or a chorus, the pieces would be tied together in a Coda. I knew this early on.

The other, "Waltz on East 6th Street," arrived as a Triptych and hence its three panels. While I knew the general questions I wanted to tackle, I had no idea at the outset what each "panel" would comprise.

Once I accepted and grew comfortable with the fact that for this story, the form was an important element, there was a much deeper challenge. I found myself, as I'm sure other writers and artists have, asking myself if I had a right to write this story, to even touch Holocaust material.

I am not a child of survivors. I did however grow up with many - perhaps a third to a half of my friends were children of survivors, as were many of our Jewish Day School teachers. Sixth grade Talmud class would cease mid-discussion as, without any warning, something would suddenly trigger our teacher to begin a story of what he'd endured. Though we barely talked about it amongst ourselves, we all knew there was a profound difference between the parents of our American born friends and the survivors, and consequently there was a difference between us. 

Those of us born to American parents seemed innocent, naive, tabula rasa. Where the stakes were high in terms of how we did in school, which spouse or profession we chose, it was clear that they were not quite as high as for our friends who were children of survivors. The Holocaust was extremely present in our Day School education, from the guest speakers to the many films we were shown from the early grades on. And so it would seem that there was nothing left to wonder about. But there was everything to wonder about.

Except in the case of our sixth grade teacher, it was in whispers and innuendo that we learned of people's histories. And one never knew where the kernels of truth lay. The true stories of the people around us were not always discussed. We might know some salient detail: "So and so can never eat blended food because of the rations in the camps" or "so and so was the sole survivor in his family."

It was later, when I read books by survivors themselves, Ilona Karmel's An Estate of Memory and books by Primo Levi, that the details began to take shape, and as any writer or reader knows, it is the details that bring a story to life.

It was when those details became vivid that a question began to take shape for me in a new way: How did one survive? And I don't mean the logistics or details of what they might have had to do to survive - which was, to my mind, quite beyond my ability or right to judge, but rather how did the spirit survive in the face of such multiple trauma? And then an associated question - Did we have a right to ask our questions? Did survivors who chose to remain silent not have a right to their silence? Did we want to risk an unraveling of the very weave that enabled them to continue?

These are the questions that animate "Waltz on East Sixth Street."

As writers we often don't know what we know until it's on the page. Similarly it was only when looking back at this story and at "Cul de Sac," that I understood that, of all my stories, perhaps it was these two that had declared their form first because the material they contained was so painful, I had to be sure of its containment before I could begin.

Visit Tehila's official website here.

New Reviews

Friday, November 16, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:

Semitic Squads

Friday, November 16, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Marc Tracy challenged Jewish sports fans to a little quiz and wrote about Jews in sports and Hollywood. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Each of our 50 essays focuses on an individual figure. (The closest there is to an exception is Deborah Lipstadt's moving piece, which is a memorial to the 11 Israeli athletes murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games in Munich; it focuses on the wrestler Yossef Romano.) Which got me thinking: if we were going to write a book called Jewish Teams—or, to keep the alliteration, Semitic Squads—which would make the cut?

Baseball: This one seems more difficult than it is. The Chicago Cubs' perennial underdog status seems to reflect the Jewish ethos; the Boston Red Sox' almost messianic redemption seems to reflect the Jewish story (unless it too closely reflects the Christian one!). The Detroit Tigers had Hank Greenberg, the Milwaukee Brewers have Ryan Braun. The San Francisco Giants trace their route back to New York City, and the New York Mets have claimed the mantle of New York teams departed. Which is to say nothing of the Yankees. However, talk of New York of course leads us to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Had this merely been the franchise that hosted Sandy Koufax, dayenu. But, of course, this was the last professional franchise to call Brooklyn home until the Brooklyn Nets debuted a couple of weeks ago. (In fact, for the first couple years of his career, Koufax played home games at Ebbets Field, about five miles from the Bensonhurst neighborhood where he'd grown up.) So, Dodgers it is.

Basketball: After New York, Philadelphia was the hotbed of Jewish basketball: Eddie Gottlieb managed the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association squad (the SPHAs) before becoming coach and then owner of the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors. After they skipped town for San Francisco (they now play in Oakland and are known as the Golden State Warriors), the great Dolph Schayes' Syracuse Nationals moved down to become the 76ers. Of course, the key phrase here is "after New York." It was New York Jews who developed the game; Ossie Schechtman who scored the first basket in NBA history while playing for the New York Knickerbockers; and Red Holzman, profiled in our book by Todd Gitlin, who coached the Knicks to two championships 25 years later. Also, Woody Allen is a Knicks fan. This one isn't even close.

Football: It would be simple to give this to the New York (football) Giants. They won the second-ever NFL championship when five-foot equipment manager Abe Cohen secured them special shoes to play on the iced-over Polo Grounds. They were quarterback Benny Friedman's team. Even today, they are half-owned by film producer Steve Tisch. But enough with New York, right? Let's give this to Al Davis' team, the Oakland Raiders, now owned by his son. The real question is: are the Raiders a point of pride, or a shanda fur de goyim?

Hockey: In Jewish Jocks, Grantland writer Jonah Keri—whose professional focus is baseball—makes a case for his hometown Montreal Canadiens in the course of profiling defender Mathieu Schneider, and it's a convincing one. The Canadiens have won more championships than any team in any other major sport except for the Yankees—but have not done so for nearly two decades, and these days (especially as a cancelled NHL season looms), they are as much an exercise in nostalgia as anything else. Sound familiar? Besides, hockey is like smoked meat to basketball's pastrami, right?

Soccer: If we were restricting ourselves to the English Premier League, this would be the Tottenham Hotspurs, whose fans call them "Yids"—in a good way—in part due to their North London environs. But as Simon Kuper makes clear in his Jewish Jocks essay on Bennie Muller, it's the Dutch squad Ajax that is undeniably the world's most Jewish soccer club. It's so Jewish that even non-Jewish players like superstar Johan Cruijff were assumed to be of the Tribe.

Olympics: On the one hand, there is a more or less official Jewish country. (More or less: I don't mean to start any arguments here.) On the other hand, a different country has, by far, sent the most Jewish medal-winners to various Games. Our pick? The United States of America.

Marc Tracy is the co-editor of the new book Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He is a staff writer atThe New Republic. Previously, he was a staff writer at Tablet, where his blog, The Scroll, won the 2011 National Magazine Award.

Book Cover of the Week: The Mothers

Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Jennifer Gilmore's forthcoming novel, The Mothers (April 2013, Scribner), has a new cover! 

We Missed These Jewish Jocks. Do You Know Them?

Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Marc Tracy wrote about Jews in sports and Hollywood. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In the movie Airplane, a passenger asks for some "light" reading and is offered "this leaflet, 'Famous Jewish Sports Legends.'" But actually, we have 50 essays and could have easily assigned that many more. (Well, maybe not easily, but they're out there.) How well do you know Jewish Jocks? Below is a list of ten of them, none of whom made it into our volume, along with brief descriptions of who they were and are. Can you match the names and the descriptions? Let this quiz serve as proof that there is more than a leaflet to this subject.

1. Amy Alcott
2. Ryan Braun
3. Rod Carew
4. Sid Gilman
5. Fred Lebow
6. Red Klotz
7. Lip Pike
8. Steve Sabol
9. Abe Saperstein
10. Dara Torres

a. As head coach of the San Diego Chargers, developed a pass-heavy offense that serves as the template for contemporary football's downfield attack.
b. Winner of five golf majors.
c. The impresario behind the Harlem Globetrotters, from its beginnings as a team that genuinely played to compete to the lovable bunch of pranksters you know today.
d. The only non-Jew on this list.
e. A 12-time Olympic gold-medalist swimmer.
f. Longtime head of NFL Films, whose gridiron documentaries shaped the mythological lens through which many see professional football.
g. The first professional baseball player—that is, the first person who was ever compensated for services rendered on the diamond.
h. To this day, the coach of the Washington Generals, the basketball team that ritualistically gets defeated by the Harlem Globetrotters.
i. Founder of the New York City Marathon.
j. Last season's National League Most Valuable Player.

Answers can be found here. No Googling!

Marc Tracy is the co-editor of the new book Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He is a staff writer at The New Republic. Previously, he was a staff writer at Tablet, where his blog, The Scroll, won the 2011 National Magazine Award.

One-Year Anniversary!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week, the Jewish Book Council Website turns ONE.  We've had some fantastic contributions and feedback throughout the year and look forward to bringing you more reviews, features, reading lists, and resources in the coming year.  Below, find some of our top read reviews, blog posts, and book club themes from the past twelve months.

Now, time for the best part: In celebration of our first anniversary and Jewish Book Month, we're giving away free book bundles! To enter to win, post a comment here with your favorite Jewish book (or you can comment on Facebook (don't forget to tag us!) or share via Twitter using #JLit). The winner will be chosen at random on November 26th, so be sure to share you favorite book by November 25th. 



ProsenPeople Posts

Promowork: A Necessary Evil (Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor)

Tisha B’Av and the Olympic Games (Dvora Meyers)

Sarah's Key, Mary's Secrets, and Truth That's Stranger Than Fiction (Lois Leveen)

Genetic Memory: Feeling Jewish (Doreen Carvajal)

Wandering Mother, Wondering Daughter: Part 1 (Anne Cherian)

The Magic of Summer Camp (Jonathan Krasner)

Book Club Themes

Historical Fiction

Contemporary Israeli Literature

Keeping it in the Family

Emerging Voices

Short Stories

The Charitable Side of Jekyll & Hyde

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 | Permalink

Today, JBC reviewer M. Elias Keller writes about how a core Jewish concept helped him write his novel, Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel.

Although I’m a Jewish writer, my novel, Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, is not a Jewish novel—but it was a deeply-rooted concept of Judaism that illuminated and clarified my story’s themes and direction.

In 2009, I re-read one of my favorite novels, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and was especially intrigued by a passage that explains Jekyll’s potion as having “no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prison-house of my disposition; and that which stood within ran forth.” Pondering this, I pursued the idea of writing about a morally-conflicted man taking the potion and creating a manifestation of his purely good side. And since financial scandals such as the mortgage crisis and Bernie Madoff were hot news topics, I settled on a banker for my protagonist: pitiless businessman by day, and, by aid of the drug, a saintly almsgiver at night.

Wanting to present thematic complexity that would give Mr. Bodkin and Father Whitechapel the best chance of standing as a genuine companion volume to Stevenson’s classic, the philosophical aspects of charity became a focal point. This also fit nicely with the historical fiction aspect of the novel, revolving around the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.), a 19th-century British institution that sought to systematize charity and aid those deemed most deserving, rather than most needy. Reviled in its time for ideas that are now rather commonplace (think: grant applications), the C.O.S. was strongly against street-charity, and thus, in my fictional world, the open-handed Father Whitechapel.

Underlying this examination of charity was an even more perplexing question: what is charity? What is the responsibility of the wealthy to the poorer classes? Although I was writing a story and not an essay, these questions were important to understanding my character’s decisions and personalities. For example, a scene in the book depicts an exchange between the Secretary of the C.O.S. (the real-life Charles Stewart Loch), and his friend Mr. Meade, a sweatshop-owning clothing manufacturer:

“Not come soliciting, have you?” Mr. Meade asked, with one of his characteristic guffaws.
“No, sir,” Mr. Loch replied, forcing a thin smile. “I have well given up that chase.”
“Well, it’s nothing against you, Charles,” said the other, as the two men settled into their seats. “But then I never went in for charity and the like. What is it, anyway, except more spent at the public-houses and rat-pits?” Mr. Meade harrumphed, rapping the arm of his chair. “The best form of charity, I say, is a sound economy. Everything else,” he added, flushing crimson, “is wasted money or self-serving balderdash!”
This little spirit of temper was somewhat of an affront to Mr. Loch, but being a man inured to criticism, he merely nodded stoically. “Perhaps so, Wallace, but a sound economy is built on liveable wages.”
Meade snorted, swirled his glass, and continued pontificating along a familiar line. “There will always be hunger, Charles. That is a fact of life. Natural selection and so forth. Some men thrive, and some go to the wall. I pay the wages that the market will bear.”
“Starvation wages, you mean,” Mr. Loch rejoined mildly.
“Starvation, sir, is a discipline,” Meade came back with; “and London’s poor would do well to have more of it.”

Somewhere along the way, I recalled an idea from Judaic studies: the definition of tzedakah as “justice”—not “charity.” (This definition does translate to the wider Christian world, as we see in St. Augustine’s counsel: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”) And aligning charity with justice helped me to align the story with my own internal conflicts. It’s easy to drop some change into a cardboard box with the Star of David on it, or make a donation to the Jewish Federation, and accept that as tzedakah—“charity.” But it’s difficult, uncomfortable and time-consuming to truly confront the world’s inequalities and injustices.

In my novel, Mr. Bodkin discovers the fatal consequences of using a magic potion to “solve” his internal conflicts. In the real world, the stakes are smaller—yet the conflict is there, especially for those who must thoughtfully steward the money and time of donors. Consider the complexities of institutional charity, such as foundations contributing to cancer research/prevention organizations—while earning dividend income from stockholdings in companies like Altria (the parent company of Marlboro cigarettes).

Charity is something we can compartmentalize: we have our living expenses and luxuries, and our donations; we have our work and leisure times, and our volunteer sessions. But the question of justice permeates every moment of our lives and forces us to accept that true tzedakah cannot be donated or purchased. True tzedakah, true justice, must be demanded by every one of us, every day, with every dollar we spend and give.

M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a freelance and journalistic writer in Philadelphia and San Diego, as well as publishing short fiction in various literary magazines. Keller is the author of Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel (GZI Productions, 2012), a companion novel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. He lives in Philadelphia.

Sports Is Like Hollywood: They're Both Jewish!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 | Permalink

Marc Tracy is the co-editor of the new book Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth wrote a passage that, had he not written it, we would have needed to invent:

The radio was playing ‘Easter Parade’ and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.

It is old hat to point out that the story of America is of the melting pot, and that the tension is between the assimilators and those who cling to their old identities. But as Roth describes above, the Jewish story in America has represented a distinctive twist on that. Yes, there has been plenty of overcompensating gestures toward Americanness, as all of those Jewish babies named Norman, Lionel, and indeed Irving testify. But just as frequently, and more prominently, Jews have stepped in and changed the culture—have moved the mountain to themselves rather than moving to the mountain—and did so in such exciting and obviously appealing ways that everyone else followed their lead.

In music, Berlin de-Christed Christmas; George Gershwin jazzed up the joint; and the musical was practically invented by Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein, and brought to glorious fruition in the work of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Many non-Jews have made astounding contributions to American popular music, too, of course, but they worked in a rubric devised by these Jews.

Hollywood, famously, was "An Empire of Their Own," to quote the title of Neil Gabler's book, a dream-factory created by German Jewish moguls and nurtered into an art form by a group of emigre auteurs who fused Weimar-era seriousness with Yiddish humor. It is amazing to think that 1920s filmgoers who rushed to see The Jazz Singer, the first sound picture ever, saw Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) singing "Kol Nidre" at the climax.

In literature, Saul Bellow created the template for a brash new voice, with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth close behind. Roth himself once identified the swaggering tone of Bellow's Adventures of Augie March with “the same sort of assertive gusto that the musical sons of immigrant Jews—Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein—brought to America’s radios, theatres, and concert halls by staking their claim to America (as subject, as inspiration, as audience)." When John Updike—a great novelist who is as not-Jewish as they come—wanted to create a sort of alter ego for himself, he created Henry Bech, because obviously his fictional Great American Novelist would have to be a Jew.

What Franklin Foer and I learned in the course of editing Jewish Jocks is that sports, too, is a realm in which Jewish innovations ended up influencing everyone else. The no-look passes and backdoor cuts of basketball trace their lineage to turn-of-the-century New York City, where smaller Jews devised ingenious strategems to defeat squads representing more physically endowed ethnicities; as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein notes in her essay on Barney Sedran (the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame), Coach Harry Baum imported some of those commonplace concepts from lacrosse. In football, Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman (profiled by Rich Cohen in our book) invented the modern quarterback position as we know it; Howard Cosell (whom David Remnick wrote about) was the reason many fans tuned into Monday Night Football, which helped make that sport the massive spectacle it is today; and as Jonathan Mahler notes in our book, Daniel Okrent, by inventing fantasy sports, turned us into a nation of number-crunching Jewish sports fans. Cue the closing strains of "Rhapsody in Blue."

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Previously, he was a staff writer at Tablet, where his blog, The Scroll, won the 2011 National Magazine Award.

New Reviews

Friday, November 09, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


Friday, November 09, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about how to succeed in academia without doing any research and Super Tuesday. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Are Israeli guys real men? Yes, I mean the tank commanders and pilots and infantry sergeants. The ones who are viewed in so many places as the type specimens of the tough macho Jew.

That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret’s short story “Cocked and Locked,” about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.

“Wimps,” like Keret’s story, portrays Israeli soldiers facing off against Palestinians in the territories. In the case of my chapter, it’s the height of the First Intifada in 1988. As well as chronicling how my unit coped with the challenges and moral issues presented by the Palestinian uprising, my chapter explores the relationship between army service and masculinity.

In Keret’s story, a young Palestinian man taunts an Israeli soldier by portraying him as a sexual object used by his sergeant. The goading indeed drives the soldier into an unexpected response, but perhaps not for the reasons that an American reader might presume.

The men in Company C are tough and determined, but they are also family men and civilians serving in the army for a couple months a year. They’ve been through wars but most of them have children. Two of them are gay, a fact that the other soldiers accept matter-of-factly and without feeling that their masculinity is threatened. And remember, this is at a time when homosexuality was forbidden in the US army, on the grounds that the presence of gay soldiers in a military unit would play havoc with “unit cohesion” and destroy it as a fighting force.

Comic relief in “Wimps” is provided by Marcel Levy, a French immigrant and paparazzo photographer who boasts of sleeping with every single one of the celebrity actresses he manages to snap in various states of undress. The other men think he’s totally off the wall. Levy’s braggadocio about his purported military exploits is one reason; another is that sexual conquest is not something that these men see as particularly masculine behavior. Both the attitudes toward gay men and toward casual sex show, in my mind, that there are important differences between Israeli and American concepts of masculinity. I don’t mean to say that Israeli men aren’t macho in their own and often infuriating way, but it’s important to understand the contrasts.

After pointing this out, I asked the students what they thought bugged the soldier in Keret’s story and what caused him to take the dramatic action he takes at the end. I suspect that before our discussion the students might have assumed that the soldier felt that his masculinity was threatened—that he was infuriated because a Palestinian guy his own age was accusing him of being queer. 

One of the students hit it on the head, in my opinion. “I think he’s upset,” she suggested, “because the Palestinian is perverting the soldier’s relationship with his sergeant.” In other words, he’s suggesting that the soldier’s love for his sergeant is a sexual love rather than the love that prevails among soldiers who fight side by side.

Does that make Israeli soldiers wimps? You might want to read the Company C to find out. An electronic edition, for Kindle, Ipad, and other platforms, will be available very soon. The same goes for my book on the Jordan Rift valley, Israel’s eastern boundary land, A Crack in the Earth. Watch my Facebook page and website for the official announcement, or write to me at and I’ll send you an e-mail notice when the books are out.

Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.