The ProsenPeople

New Reviews

Friday, July 20, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:

AMIA: Three Weeks Reflection

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Amalia Safran

Yesterday marked the 18th anniversary of the bombing of the AMIA in the Once neighborhood of Buenos Aires. After living in Once for five months, commemorating the day was important to me. I was living in a residencia for my junior year semester abroad just blocks from where the attack took place on July 18, 1994. Only passing the building once—a plain, boxy-gray structure with a large black plaque filled with the 85 names in graffiti-writing of the people who diedI still felt a strong inclination to think about the tragedy at some point during my day as a way of commemoration.

What is interesting about this time of year, the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av, is that it is also a time of commemoration—a time to remember and mourn the events leading up to the destruction of the temples, which took place on the last day of the three weeks. I had only just learned about the AMIA tragedy this year and the coincidence that it fell during the three weeks. So, with the anniversary of the AMIA bombing and the “three weeks of sorrow,” how do we remember and commemorate tragedy during our busy, often over-planned, summer lives?

Incorporating the “three weeks of sorrow” into my daily life has proven to be a challenge, as was my personal commemoration of the AMIA bombing. Between work and its consistently chaotic commute, catching up with friends who I hadn’t seen in months, walking with my family to get ice cream on warm summer nights, hopping on trains to get away for the weekends, and of course basking in air conditioning while catching up on television, it becomes difficult to put summer aside and reflect on past tragedies. Not to say my list of summer chores is more important or a higher priority in my life than commemoration and reflection, but along with summertime comes a care-free attitude that makes us sometimes forget the reality, or forget past impactful events.

So between work, friends, family, food, travel, and television, I found time to reflect yesterday. I read a few articles about the AMIA and the memorial service that took place in Buenos Aires, along with some literature about the three weeks. It put me in a different state of mind—one that wasn’t contemplating ice cream flavors or what to pack for the weekend, but instead a state of mind that made me think, really think, about the tragedies that happened this time of year. I thought about my time in Buenos Aires, my time living in the Orthodox Jewish community of Once, my time walking past the AMIA, my past summers at conservative Jewish camp, my experiences hearing Eichah from campers, my usual singing of Hatikvah at the closing of Tisha B’av, my summer in Israel, my time spent at the Western Wall—these all came into my mind as a way of reflection and remembrance. It was brief. It didn’t follow any sort of order or rules, but it was for me.

Commemoration can be a difficult thing. The “three weeks of sorrow” consists of fasts, Torah readings, and refraining from joyous events in order to retain a somber and sorrowful state. My time during the three weeks hasn’t been like that; I have enjoyed people’s company, parties, traveling—I have enjoyed summer. But along with the enjoyment of summer, I still wanted and was able to find a way to commemorate on my own, a way that let me take time from the chaos to remember and mourn in a meaningful way.

Amalia is a student at Lehigh University and an intern at the Jewish Book Council.

JLit Links

Thursday, July 19, 2012 | Permalink
Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A Hidden History

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week Matti Friedmana reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex, wrote about the codex vs. the Kindle. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Having just spent four years on a book about the biblical manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex, I can say with some certainty that some of the most important things I learned had nothing to do with the codex at all, but rather with the people who guarded it. I came to think of this as a hidden history behind events in the Middle East.

The Jewish community of Aleppo, a trading city in northern Syria where this manuscript was kept in a synagogue for six centuries, was one of the communities we sometimes think of – to the extent that we think of them at all – as belonging to the lands of Islam. But Islam came to those places only long after the Jews were already there; the Aleppo Jews, for example, were in the city roughly a millennium before Muhammad preached in Arabia and before his adherents arrived in Syria. In Aleppo, and in many cities throughout the Middle East, the Jews were natives in a way that those of us of European descent, with our transient ancestors, can hardly imagine.

On November 30, 1947, mobs in Aleppo incensed by the UN vote to partition Palestine the previous day attacked the city’s Jews. I interviewed people who remembered the rioters torching synagogues, making piles of Hebrew manuscripts, prayer shawls and phylacteries and setting them alight. Like a different wave of riots in Europe nine years before, this one was a harbinger of the end for a Jewish way of life: Today, Jewish Aleppo has vanished; its residents were among the 850,000 Jews forced out of their ancestral homes in Islamic countries.

Two Jewish worlds came to an end in the 1940s. We are familiar with the first, which many of us think of simply as the Jewish world: Jewish humor, Jewish cuisine, Jewish writing – all of these terms apply, in North American parlance, to the Jews of Europe. The Jewish world of the Middle East included fewer people and ended in less cataclysmic circumstances. But it was just as Jewish and just as important, and it is just as gone.

In discussing the modern state of Israel, the Jews of the Middle East are often mentioned as a kind of curiosity, an aside in what we tell as Aleppo-Jewish201914a European story – pogroms, Herzl, Zionism, the Holocaust. In this story, Jews and Arabs first encountered each other in the late nineteenth century; we imagine the Russian-born pioneer encountering the Arab fellah on the rocky soil of Palestine. But that isn’t true, and the Jews who had always lived in the Middle East are not a footnote.

When Islam began in Arabia, Jews were there, and when the first Muslims began spreading to cities across the Mideast, they found Jews there as well. Jews were recognized by Islam as a protected, second-class ethnic group, dhimmi, sometimes persecuted, sometimes tolerated. They were generally considered to be effete and without honor. In recent years it has become common to speak of the Muslim Middle East as a haven in which Jews thrived, but this is nonsense; the Islamic world owes its good reputation in this regard to Europeans, who set a standard for mistreatment that is impossible to match.

Jews had existed in the Muslim imagination for many centuries by the time the first Zionists arrived in the Middle East, and the place they occupied in that imagination made the Zionist project problematic in ways that are still playing out. Jews were inferior to Muslims by definition. They were weak, a subject community, and that made their success in Palestine impossible to accept: Being beaten and outsmarted by a powerful empire like Britain or France was one thing. Being beaten and dominated by Jews – as Arabs were, again and again, before 1948 and in subsequent wars – was a humiliation that simply could not be accepted. It was like being beaten by a girl. The depth of this humiliation, which lies at the root of today’s conflict, is something Israel and its supporters have too often failed to appreciate.

The dissonance between the very old Muslim perception of the Jew and the reality of the twentieth century came to be explained in the Arab world by turning to conspiracy theories. Jews could not have beaten Muslims fairly; they were nefarious, and here Europeans had plenty of material they were happy to share, and which was translated into Arabic and still enthusiastically circulates across the Middle East. (I have encountered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion at otherwise normal bookstores in Istanbul and Cairo and in an academic bookstore adjacent to the prestigious American University of Beirut.)

YemeniJewBy the 1950s, most of the Jews of the Middle East were concentrated in Israel, and they played a central role in forging the national life of the country. And yet it has been convenient for all parties, Israelis included, to describe Israel as a European enclave. For Israelis, this claim allows them a sense of superiority. For the Arabs, it allows the erasure of the fate of their own Jewish communities and enables them to portray Israel as a Western invader. It has become cliché, for example, to note that hummus and falafel and other Middle Eastern foods that Israelis consider to be Israeli are in fact a native cuisine appropriated by newcomers. This only makes sense if you don’t understand that fully 50 percent of Israel’s Jews are the people who were kicked out of Islamic countries or their descendants – the cuisine of the Mideast, of course, belongs to them and their countrymen as much as it does to anyone else. When we look at Israel and its neighbors, and at the last Jewish century, we would benefit by restoring this missing history to its place – right at the center of the story.

Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.

S. Y. Agnon

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | Permalink

July 17th is the birthday of S. Y. Agnon, in honor of which we have assembled some publications of his work. But let's begin with an excerpt from Barbara Andrew's article on Agnon from the Jewish Book World archives:

His writings are reminiscent of a literary Chagall. They portray a life in a world that no longer exists but yet exists in a dream-like state, neither real nor imaginary, but somewhere in between.

Continue Reading

Book Cover of the Week: You Exist

Tuesday, July 17, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

OK, good to know. Read more here.

You Exist. Details Follow. is Stuart Ross’s seventh full-length collection of poetry. In these poems, Ross veers in opposite directions: narrative confessional poems, and works that might be considered abstract expressionist, and a lot both in between and beyond those boundaries. Each poem breathes with the signature weirdness, the sharp wit, and gentle awe that Ross is known for. Here you’ll find confounding centos, fractured sonnets, delirious lists, poems composed through surrealist strategies, a new addition to Ross’s autobiographical Razovsky series, and more.

Codex vs. Kindle

Monday, July 16, 2012 | Permalink

Matti Friedman is a reporter in Jerusalem for the Times of Israel, and author of The Aleppo Codex. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Although it fell, in retrospect, at the mid-point between the launch of the Kindle and the Kindle 2, I don’t think I had more than a vague notion of what a Kindle was on the day in the summer of 2008 when I first descended into a dark room at Israel’s national museum in Jerusalem and, standing in front of a dimly lit display case, encountered its exact opposite.

I spent much of the next four years writing the story of the object I found in the museum, a manuscript known as the Aleppo Codex – a millennium-old bundle of animal skins that is the oldest and most accurate copy of the entire Hebrew Bible. In these years I was not cut off entirely from the march of technology. I acquired an iPod, and learned to send e-mail from my cellphone. But I never purchased a Kindle or any of its cousins, nor did I fully understand what they augured.

The Aleppo Codex is a book, one of the most important on earth. I wrote a book about this book. These things seemed clear to me, but when my deadline passed and I finally looked up to find myself staring into the dead electronic eye of the Kindle Fire, I saw that the meaning of “book” had been altered and that I had just spent these years of revolution engrossed in a mirror image of the present.

To prepare the Aleppo Codex, tanners scrubbed, stretched and cut animal hides into folios that were stitched together by craftsmen. Someone scored a grid of lines onto the pages with a sharp instrument, and a scribe, Shlomo Ben-Buya’a, from the town of Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, used iron gall ink to write the Bible’s more than 300,000 Hebrew words one by one. Its completion around 930 A.D. after years of work represented the final condensation of the Hebrew Bible from an ancient oral tradition to a codified text in black ink on parchment – a book. The codex crowned centuries of scholarship and was meant to be the perfect version of the twenty-four books that made up the Bible, a kind of physical incarnation of the heavenly text in a single manuscript. For Jews, every letter and vowel sound in the Hebrew text is crucial – according to one tradition, the entire Torah is one long version of God’s name, which is another way of saying you do not want to get anything wrong. The codex sanctified, even fetishized, the act of reading: above and below the letters were tiny hooks, lines and circles denoting vowels, punctuation and the precise notes to which the words were to be chanted in synagogue. It was an object of nearly unimaginable value to the people who revered it.

Aleppo-HighRes2-Neviim4b-Kings2An electronic book exists in an infinite number of copies; there is no original. The Aleppo Codex, on the other hand, existed only in its original five-hundred-page manuscript. There were no copies at all, and for this reason its physical safety was always paramount. In 1099, it was held in a Jerusalem synagogue when the First Crusade arrived under Duke Godfrey of Bouillon and Raymond, Count of Toulouse. The crusaders sacked the city, massacred its inhabitants, and seized property. According to a Muslim historian, they burned a synagogue with Jews inside, but historical records also inform us that the Christians saved hundreds of Jewish books to hold for ransom. The Jews’ weakness in this regard was well known, and in some of the correspondences of the time it seems their concern for the stolen books was so great that it rivaled their concern for human captives. The books, each one painstakingly copied, like the codex, by hand, contained priceless and sometimes irreplaceable information. After Jerusalem fell, the Jewish community in Fustat, next to Cairo, raised money and sent 123 dinars with an emissary and instructions to “redeem the Scrolls of the Torah and to [attend to] the ransoming of the people of God, who are in the captivity of the Kingdom of Evil, may God destroy it.” The books, in that sentence, came first.

By 1947, the codex had been in a grotto in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, for six hundred years. For the Jews of Aleppo, it had become over time less a scholarly resource than a talisman, the community’s mystic power source and a guarantor of its survival: Traditions of great age and import made clear that if the book were ever moved the community would be destroyed. (This, old exiles from that vanished community never tired of telling me, might have sounded fanciful but it did come to pass.) It became as revered as a cathedral’s fragment of saintly hair or bone; even its individual pages, or pieces of pages, came to be seen as valuable. Few had ever seen it, and there were still no copies – requests from scholars abroad to purchase, borrow, or photograph the codex had been turned down by its keepers, the Aleppo elders, who appeared to believe that allowing copies to be made would dilute the book’s power and their own.

Then came November 29th of that year, when the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two states, one for Arabs and one for Jews. The next day, a mob rioted in Aleppo. The rioters burned Jewish homes and stores. They burned the synagogue. The codex disappeared.

The Aleppo Codex “was devoured by fire in the riots that erupted against the Jews of Aleppo several weeks ago,” wrote a heartbroken Bible scholar in the Israeli daily Haaretz a few weeks later, in an article best described as an obituary for what he called “this beloved relic of the wisdom of the Middle Ages.” The codex wasn’t lost, it later turned out, but this was the meaning of a single book with no copies: the knowledge inside could be lost forever. Here, then, was a book – a single, physical book – that meant everything.

Early this year, with my own book squared away, I attended a seminar with a wunderkind web designer who, as part of a PowerPoint presentation on the 21st-century media, showed us a picture of a cloud against a clear blue sky. “The book does not exist,” he declared. People nodded. The book, he said, was in a theoretical cloud somewhere, and all that existed now were the Kindles and iPads and Nooks and the other “gateways to the cloud.” The book had been a step on the evolutionary ladder from those ancient stories told aloud to information beamed invisibly around the world in an instant, available anywhere and present nowhere at all.

My own book, thankfully, would still be a physical object printed, bound and placed on shelves. I suppose I’m too old – thirty-four – not to care about that. But it was no longer inconceivable that this would not be the case, that a book would have no pages of its own, no cover, that it would be nothing that could ever be kept in a safe, dismembered, kept as a lucky charm, coveted, pursued or stolen as the Aleppo Codex was.

If this great Brontosaurus of a manuscript, in its glorious, inconvenient physicality, in the extreme and occasionally dark impulses it has elicited from men, has a role in this new world of clouds, perhaps it is to remind us, distracted as we are by the metallic gleam of gadgets, that the information inside a book can be the most important thing we possess: our power source, the guarantor of the survival of our human community. The library is, as Umberto Eco wrote in The Name of the Rose, the scene of a “centuries-old murmuring” among pages: “a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or been their conveyors.” Whether knowledge is encapsulated somehow in disembodied electrons or written on the skins of 10th-century Galilean livestock, the codex remains in its dark room in Jerusalem to remind us that this has not changed.

Visit Matti Friedman's official website here and read more about the Aleppo Codex here.

New Reviews

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink
This week's reviews:


Olympic Fever

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink
Looking for a way to get ready for the Olympics? We have some sports titles to get your head in the game. Find the complete list here.

Dating and Doctors

Friday, July 13, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Francesca Segal wrote about recasting a classic novel and about being asked the question "Who are your characters REALLY?". She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

It was several years ago when my mother went for a flu shot to our family doctor, an avuncular, bearded South African whose medical practice comfortably services at least half of north-west London’s Jewry. It is a position that requires front-line heroism when one considers the demographic; the armchair physicians and proxy-hypochondriacs and tirelessly frantic Jewish mothers. His desk is a confusion of stuffed animals and rubber chew toys, brightly coloured and easily disinfected, the armoury of the family practitioner. Dr Winter oversaw the removal of almost half the tonsils in my junior school classroom, and has attended to the food poisonings and holiday vaccinations and slipped discs of most of our synagogue. My family has been going to him since 1985. And so, a flu shot for Mrs Segal. But the doctor was conscious of a far more serious threat to her well-being.

‘Nu?’ he demanded, settling back for a chat. ‘Why isn’t she married?’

At the time I was twenty-seven.

‘Never mind, I have someone. Nice boy. Older. Westminster and Oxford, like Francesca. He’ll call her. Leave it with me.’

And so my mother left, inoculated against both flu and, it was hoped, social disgrace, clutching the prescription for a son-in-law.


A lot about north-west London is embodied in that anecdote. No one involved is remotely religious. My parents, unlike many of the neighbours, couldn’t have cared less than I hadn’t married young; they were proud I was doing well at work, and only gave my romantic status a moment’s anxiety when someone else drew their attention to it. But the community here is small and tightly-knit and has remained socially conservative, even as religious practice falls away in favour of tradition. Everyone knows everyone, and can probably name the whereabouts of all kindergarten classmates. There are simply not enough of us to render the shidduch defunct; that charming man you met at a dinner party is, statistically, unlikely to be in the tribe. It’s a lovely place to grow up, but in early adulthood in particular, the warmth can border on claustrophobia.

Despite the Crossing Delancey parochialism of our introduction, I actually spent six rather tempestuous months with the doctor’s prescribed gentleman. He was handsome, and it therefore took a little while to realise that he was also, as the endlessly applicable saying goes, Not That Into Me. But if nothing else, the whole episode illustrated the strength and vigour of the north-west London grapevine, nourished as it is by the fertile soil of local gossip, because less than a week after we broke up, Dr Winter was on the phone to my mother.

‘Did it work?’ he demanded. This was mere feint; fifteen patients that morning had no doubt already told him that it hadn’t. ‘No? Never mind, I have a backup.’

This time, valiantly, my mother tried to fend him off. Dr Winter would not accept her refusal. But I must thank him because it was the backup, in many ways, who defined my fate.

Dr Winter has called and given me your number. I am very flattered,’ read his email, as if I had been declaiming sonnets beneath his window when, in fact, this email was the first I’d heard of him, ‘but I’m sorry to tell you that I have just started seeing someone. If it doesn’t work out with her then I will certainly get in touch in the future. PS. Did you go to King Alfred’s School? I think my sister knows you.

It was shortly after that email (which I did not answer, lest you were concerned) that I decided to move to New York. And it was shortly after moving to New York – safely buffered from home by the Atlantic – that I decided to write a novel set back home. North-west London and I have made up now, and these days I spend most of my time there. But two years away afforded me a fantastic perspective – and the opportunity to remember all its strengths, as well as to smile at its foibles with fondness.

Visit Francesca Segal's official website here and join JBC on July 16th for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Francesca.