The ProsenPeople

When the Hurricane Came to New Orleans

Thursday, June 03, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

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author of When the Hurricane Came to New Orleans, which won the 2009 Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award (currently unpublished, but will hopefully be available soon!)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

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

2010 National Jewish Book Awards

Thursday, June 03, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

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

The forms can be found here.

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

TODAY: Twunch and Talk

Wednesday, June 02, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

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

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

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

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

The Biggest Cemetery in the World

Wednesday, June 02, 2010 | Permalink

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said, in English, “For head.”

He was making me wear a yarmulke.

He touched his head, touched my head.

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

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

I went home.

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

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

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

Afterward a few hung around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Network Author Makes the 10th

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 | Permalink

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

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

Visit Hoffman’s website at

Writing a Book Like Coney Island…

Tuesday, June 01, 2010 | Permalink

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

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

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

They’re looking at New Jersey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Model of a Modern Major Novelist

Friday, May 28, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

For his two minutes (two minutes? read more here…) during the Network conference (200 authors in 3 days! Oh my!), author Joseph Skibell (A Curable Romantic) wowed the audience with a different approach. Taking a cue from Gilbert & Sullivan, Skibell stood up and began to play on his ukulele and sing (warning: formatting is a little off…):

The Model of a Modern Major Novelist by Joseph Skibell
(with apologies to Gilbert & Sullivan)

I am the very model of a modern major novelist,
I’ve gotten great reviews and been on Amazon’s best novel list
The Rosentahl Award from the American Academy
Is but one of the awards with which they’ve thought to flatter me.
I’ve written books in prose both elegant and economical
My characters are well-rounded, my plots a bit fantastical
And though my sales to date have not been astronomical
I’m happy to relate neither are they abominable.

This Jewish mythology with which my work is quite infused
Has captivated readers among the gentiles and the Jews
And if you gave me more than these two minutes of your time to use
I’d describe my novels to you, both the old ones and the new
To demonstrate that I am neither madman, fake, rake, nor loon
If I make extraordinary claims for A Blessing on the Moon
But since upon two minutes you insist, you’ll have to take my word for it
I am the very model of a modern major novelist.

(And now a verse about the new book!)

A Curable Romantic
is historical about an hysterial
Patient of Dr. Freud’s, it’s a book about an era full
Of utopianists and dreamers, and I haven’t even mentioned
Esperanto’s Dr. Zamenhof and half-a-dozen other luftmenshn
There’s a dybbuk and there’s Dreyfus and a dramatic sense of criss
That propels the protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn through a life of stress and strife that
Speaks to a dozen major themes I’d be glad to illustrate
If you’d only given me a little more time to elaborate.

(Still, I’ll try.)

There’s God and man and Israel and love and death and sex galore
The Scientific model in conflict with folk-a-lore
Parts linguistic, scientific, Hasidic, and also Oedipal
Arithmetically add up to a romance unforgettable.
It’s antic, not pedantic. It’s called A Curable Romantic

You can order it online; there’s no reason to get frantic
And to your JCCs I’ll come if you really must insist
That I am the very model of a modern major novelist.

In case you need it, here’s a this little Gilbert & Sullivan refresher to aid with the tune:

Consider Your Audience

Friday, May 28, 2010 | Permalink

In her last posts, Miriam Libicki blogged on taking Egged buses across Israel and on her process of drawing comic books. She has been blogging here all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning's author blogging series. 

I love exhibiting at comic book conventions. Without a big publisher — and, maybe more importantly, as a memoirist — the best way to introduce readers to my comics is to introduce myself to them, one at a time.

From my first comics, ripped out of my army diaries & turned in as assignments in art school, a year & a half after my discharge, my subject matter was controversial. My very first writing professor was dissatisfied with my examination of the social politics of burning the classified papers of a military infirmary, & implored me to address the politics of Israel’s existence instead. His critique, “It might be worth you considering who you feel is your intended audience — would it be your peers at Emily Carr, a community that is more familiar with the military situation in Israel, or some other group (or combination)?” led to the creation of the Jobnik manifesto.

(detail from the first page of the Jobnik Manifesto. To view the complete comic,go here.)

The manifesto was exactly what I didn’t want to write when I began putting my very personal, very small stories to pictures. I thought I could reveal Israeli life & humanize Israeli soldiers without being the spokeswoman for Israeli policy & the latest news story out of the Middle East. But if I was being forced into that role, I might as well own it. The four-page manifesto is now the flier I give away at cons, and a cornerstone of my booth setup.

This is my booth setup:

I wear my Jewiness & Israelitude not only on my sleeve, but across my chest and on a giant banner behind me. I have definitely become a magnet for everyone’s feelings about Israel & Judaism. Some people have really… interesting feelings. What follows are the parts of my table that get the most comment, & some adventures I’ve had trying to stay on everyone’s good side while being true to myself & not delivering a free two-hour lecture on the state of modern Zionism.

1. “Desire Peace and Chase After It.”

This shirt design is a mashup of my mother’s favourite Psalm (it’s 34:14) with an infamous road sign on I-5 near the Mexico-California border. Many people take the t-shirt as an opportunity to practice their rusty afterschool Hebrew. But even a completely nonspecific message of peace attracts political reaction-mongers.

An earnest young guy, who looked like he might be hiding a velvet kippah under his baseball cap, knew what it meant & the source, but asked, “What does that mean to you? What do you think it means, exactly, to chase peace?”

I was pretty sure he was fishing for my political stance, I imagined so he could classify me as Good for the Jews or Bad for the Jews. “It means — it means it’s not enough to sit around waiting for peace. You have to struggle for it.”

He gave up. I don’t think he ended up buying anything, but I felt I told the truth while avoiding pigeonholes.

“Oh,” said one middle-aged guy after I translated. “I saw it was Hebrew, so I assumed it must be Palestinians running from bombs dropped by my fellow Jews.”

I could not immediately imagine a response. He smiled triumphantly & walked away.

2. Towards a Hot Jew: the Israeli Soldier as Fetish Object

This essay was my senior project in art school. I didn’t originally intend to bind & distribute it as a comic, but it has become, as I say in my convention pitch, “my most popular and most controversial piece.” (I also say, “Makes a great gift for the hot Jew in your life!”)

Some people are horrified at such symbols of violence being sexualized at all (obviously, this is not at superhero-oriented comic cons). Many, many people want to tell me about Israeli soldiers they have lusted after. Most people, before reading it, have no idea if it’s a pro-Israel or anti-Israel screed, but are sure it’s one or the other. (Some people still feel that way after reading it.)

Another yeshivish-looking kid said to me with a big smile, “Thanks, but this book isn’t for me. I’m a Zionist.”

That time, I was quick enough to say, “Me, too.” We actually had a decent talk after that.

When “Hot Jew” was first published digitally, I got called an anti-Semite on the internet for the first time. One patriotic American Jew sent me a scolding email, saying, “I’m 17 years older than you, and I remember the pride Jews felt in the period after the Six Day War,” and that my essay was “parroted from what I imagine is the Northwest lefty-academic milieu that you live among.” That person went silent after I wrote back that I had not only lived in Israel, but served in the IDF.

I have yet to be called a Jew-hater by anyone who has completed IDF service.

Which brings us right up to…

3. jobnik!

So I get it from the right for “Hot Jew,” & I get it from the left for jobnik! I try to hand out my manifesto to anyone who stops long enough to make eye contact. But since they can’t read it all while standing at the table, I have a brief spiel too, about how I was raised in Ohio, came to Israel on a year program, fell in love (with everything and everyone), made aliyah, joined the army, and was totally unprepared for it.

Some people come over very serious at the “joined the army” part. “Were you unprepared for it because of culture shock, or because of the actions of the IDF?” asked a young white guy in Toronto.

I acknowledged that it was really the culture shock; when I thought of bad actions of the IDF, I thought of government policies, & military strategies that were evil or heavy-handed, not the ground troops, I mean, I know there are violent racists among enlisted soldiers, but I didn’t know any, or I don’t think I did…

An olive-skinned college-age girl asked me why I volunteered for army service, at SPX. I explained that service is compulsory for Israelis, so if I was making aliya at age 18, I felt it showed the seriousness of my commitment to join the army like a real Israeli.

“Is joining the army the only way to be Israeli?” she asked.

I admitted that many Israelis do civilian national service, and some get out on health grounds. But it seemed to me that the best way to prove my non-tourist-hood was to enlist.

She was very calm but persistent. It slowly became clear that she was Palestinian-Israeli (or Israeli Arab, or 1948 Palestinian). My innocent youthful crush on Israel was suddenly a big hole I had dug for myself. I didn’t have too much to say after that. I handed her a manifesto and abortively described my other comics.

I felt so bad afterward that I waved her down, an hour later, when she passed back through the aisle. I said I was sorry I didn’t ask her name, or about her own story. As she told me about her peace activist work in D.C., I found myself blurting out all the names & organizations of friends of mine in peace & coexistence groups, until she recognized a name (or pretended to). I felt even more ridiculous. But better a clueless defensive well-meaning colonizer, I guess, than a violent racist.

Miriam Libicki has been writing and drawing the self-published comic book jobnik! since 2003. She has been blogging all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

TC Jewfolk Launches Arts and Culture Column

Thursday, May 27, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

TC Jewfolk (Twin Cities Hub for Hip Jewish Stuff…remember Poets with Chutzpah?) just launched a new column, diaTribe, that focuses on art and culture. Here’s the deal:

You’re probably wondering what the heck this discourse is all about. We’ll be exploring Jewish arts. From books to film to studio art to theater, dance and music and beyond. And what exactly meets the criteria for Jewish art? And what makes something art? Well, that’s all part of the discourse. In addition to reviews of new books, music, theater and film, we’ll also be opening up the conversation for discussions about what makes something Jewish art. You’ll always find a diaTribe post on Sunday mornings (What can we say? We’re fans of grabbing a cup of coffee and the New York Times‘ big, fat Sunday paper filled with all sorts of great book reviews and more) and we’ll sprinkle in mid-week posts when we’ve got something good to write about.

They’re planning some great articles this summer, so be sure to check back regularly (or you can sign up for their e-mail).


Wednesday, May 26, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

It’s been a long (but wonderful) few days for the JBC team. From the Jewish Book Network conference (Rhoda was there!) to BEA, we have lots of updates and new authors to share once we resettle in the office. In the meantime, a few images from BEA…

Matthue Roth's book (see it??) meets Paul Auster's book (and Paul Auster)