The ProsenPeople

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Julie Orringer

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Second up in “Words from our Finalists”…Julie Orringer

Julie…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Julie


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

At the moment, because I have a nine-month-old son, the most challenging thing is finding enough time to work.  But every new piece I’ve written has been uniquely challenging; in The Invisible Bridgeone of the greatest difficulties was learning to balance the story’s historical elements with its fictional ones.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

My grandfather’s experiences inspired me to write this novel.  But my day-to-day inspiration is my husband, Ryan Harty, who’s also a fiction writer.  He knows how to make a schedule and stick to it, and he holds me to a very high standard—he’s an early reader of my drafts, and lets me know when something’s not working.

Who is your intended audience?

Anyone who likes to read.  But I think we all hope to reach readers whose lives are similar to those of our characters.  It’s been particularly moving to have former Hungarian forced labor inmates come to readings and tell me that their experiences mirrored the ones I describe in the novel.

I’m working on a novel about Varian Fry, the New York journalist who went to Marseille in 1940 to save nearly two thousand Jewish and anti-Nazi writers, artists, and intellectuals who’d been blacklisted by the Gestapo.  I learned about Fry while I was researching The Invisible Bridge, and it was clear that his story would take an entire novel to tell.  The novel pursues a fictional line alongside Fry’s real-life experiences.Are you working on anything new right now?

What are you reading now?

I just finished rereading David Bezmozgis’s wonderful collection, Natasha and Other Stories, about a community of Russian Jews in Toronto, and recently picked up Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, about a fantastical alligator theme park in Southern Florida.

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

In college, when my poor grades in chemistry, calculus, physics, and biology made it clear that I wasn’t cut out to be a doctor, I made a dire confession to my doctor parents: I was terribly jealous of all my friends who were taking writing and film and language classes, and I wanted to switch my major to English and see if I might study creative writing in graduate school.  They claimed to have known all along that I’d take that direction.  If only they’d told me sooner!

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

Showing up for work and getting the words down, and then revising them so they seem to express the original idea more exactly.  In the case of The Invisible Bridge, that meant taking three years to write a first draft and three more years to revise it.

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

In the morning I go to the little room my husband and I rent in the building next door, unload my computer and books, and get down to it.  I’ve got a bulletin board above the desk where I like to tack photos of the places I’m writing about, or of people who look like they might be characters in the book; I pace a lot, take walks, do research, return to the computer, wrestle with lines.  In general I try not to revise the earlier parts of a draft too extensively until I’ve finished the whole draft.  Before my baby was born, I was working about seven or eight hours a day, but until he gets a little older, I’ll be happy with three or four.

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

I’d like readers to know what happened to Hungarian Jews during the war: in other words, to feel what it might have been like to have one’s entire life—one’s aspirations, concerns, and connections—swept away in an instant, and then to have to find a way to keep living.

You can read more about Julie Orringer by visiting her website:

Spring Reviews

Monday, March 14, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

JBW subscribers: Your issue is in the mail.

A few sample reviews from the spring issue of Jewish Book World:

The Other I. Singer
By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
It is all but required, when introducing the Yiddish writer I(srael) J(oshua) Singer, to identify him as the older brother of the Yiddish writer I(saac) B(ashevis) Singer…

Promised Lands: New Jewish American Fiction on Longing and Belonging 
Derek Rubin, ed.
Reviewed by Donald Weber

An Exclusive Love: A Memoir
Johanna Adorjan; Anthea Bell, trans.
Reviewed by Claire Rudin

The Blindness of the Heart 
Julia Franck; Anthea Bell, trans.
Reviewed by Renita Last

The Finkler Question 
Howard Jacobson
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Life on Sandpaper 
Yoram Kaniuk; Anthony Berris, trans.
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Quiet Americans
Erika Dreifus
Reviewed by Judith Felsenfeld

Jenny Erpenbeck; Susan Bernofsky, trans.
Reviewed by Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.

The Eichmann Trial 
Deborah E. Lipstadt
Reviewed by Bob Goldfarb

Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice 
Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow
Reviewed by Jack Fischel

Crown of Aleppo: The Mystery of the Oldest Hebrew Bible Codex 
Hayim Tawil and Bernard Schneider
Reviewed by Stephen G. Donshik

Houdini: Art and Magic 
Brooke Kamin Rapaport; Alan Brinkley,, contributors.
Reviewed by Esther Nussbaum

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Austin Ratner

Monday, March 14, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next week, we’ll be posting “Words from our Finalists,” so you can get to know the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize finalists a little better.

First up…Austin Ratner

Austin…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Austin

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

Rejection. It’s worse than dating.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I have always written incessantly from the time I was a child.

Who is your intended audience?

Whoever will take me.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I just finished a novel about two brothers on a roadtrip from L.A. to Cleveland in the summer of 1999.  I’m in the middle of another about a labyrinth.

What are you reading now?

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

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

If I had to pinpoint it to one moment it would be a Monday lecture on nasopharyngeal bacteria in my last year of medical school, the day after the Cleveland Indians blew the 1997 World Series.

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

Most people think of success as celebrity, but as Carrie Fisher said, celebrity is just obscurity biding its time.  I’ll be mostly satisfied if I have a modest readership in my lifetime, the respect of a few critics, and if people are still reading my books 4000 years from now and comparing me to Shakespeare.

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

I used to like to write in an L.L. Bean chamois shirt and I wore out the elbows and had my dry cleaner sew patches over the holes with scrap fabric from old laundry bags.  One patch was bright purple and one was orange.  One day I decided I needed to toughen myself up and I threw it out.

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

A persuasive dream.

You can read more about Austin Ratner by visiting his website:

Sephardim Strike Back!

Monday, March 14, 2011 | Permalink

Reyna Simnegar is the author of the recently published Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Sephardic Jews are really something to ponder. According to Rabbi Chaim Amsellem, “The Sephardic way is a paradox: to keep tradition but to stay open. The Torah is not there to put handcuffs on you. We try to find solutions. We put unity first.” I am including under Sephardic all Jews that come from Middle Eastern Countries (although these are actually Mizrahi Jews) and Jews from Spain Italy and some other countries in Europe.

I was waiting to receive Rabbi Haim Levy at Logan Airport. I have been to the airport many times to receive prominent Rabbis…but never a prominent Sephardic Rabbi. I was so excited to finally meet the author of what apparently is the book that has revolutionized Sephardic Halacha (laws) and finally brought it to the hands of the regular people like me: Anshei Chayil.

Rabbi Levy was to speak that night at my home. He runs a program called “Go Sephardic” which brings Sephardic youth to Israel and helps them increase their closeness to their rich Sephardic heritage. Rabbi Levy is very typical of the new generation of Sephardic leaders who are dynamic, energetic and motivated to “return the crown to its place” as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef says.

The more I see people like Rabbi Levy, the more I realize Sephardim are ready to “strike back.” We have been in the shadows for hundreds of years, but our glory and incredible traditions have always been thriving. I think that the world is yet to see the grandeur of our people and the treasures that will come from the descendants of the Rambam and the Ben Ish Chai, to name a few.

In my humble opinion I think Sephardim are the chilly peppers of Judaism. Our tour guide in Masada was a Sephardic man with wild curly hair and an equally hairy chest where a large star-of-David dangled. When it came time to visit the ruins of the Synagogue at Masada he managed to pull out a kippah that was “baking” flat in the back pocket of his very tight jeans. He placed proudly on his head and said, sorry I only carry one so if you need something to cover your head before you enter the sanctuary use a napkin!

I am sure many of us have stories where we see an unexpected spark of a holy neshama (soul) shine through at the moment we least expected. However, when it comes to Sephardim, even people in bathing suits reach out to kiss the mezuzah! Many Sephardim keep some semblance of kashrut and have an enormous respect for anything holy. Just like Rabbi Amsellem suggested, we are a paradox…dark people (for the most part) that shine bright!

Fried Eggplant

This is one of my favorite Sephardic appetizers. However, preparing this dish also became a nightmare, because just by looking at all the oil I was using I could feel my arteries clogging! I decided to broil the eggplants instead. The secret is to use oil spray and to cut the eggplants thin enough to produce a crunchy and delicious result. Below I give you both options and you can make the choice! My Moroccan friend Michal Bessler, is the genius who taught me this recipe.

Salting the eggplant before frying will extract the excess liquid from the eggplant so that the pieces absorb less oil when fried and expel no liquid when broiled. Salting will also produce a crispier result. Please be careful and keep your children away from the sizzling oil!

2 eggplants, unpeeled, washed, and cut into slices 1/4-inch thick
5 tablespoons kosher salt
canola oil or spray
1 tablespoon chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)

Garnish Sauce
¼ cup olive oil
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
3 tablespoons lime juice or the juice of 1 lime
4 cloves fresh garlic, pressed

1. Layer the eggplant slices in a large colander, sprinkling generously with kosher salt between layers. Let stand for 30 minutes.
2. Rinse the eggplants in the same colander to wash off the extra salt. Dry with paper towels.

Frying method

1. Add canola oil to one-quarter of the depth of a very large skillet. Place over medium heat until the oil sizzles when a drop of water is drizzled onto it.
2. While the oil heats, make the garnish sauce by combining all ingredients. Set aside.
3. Fry the eggplant slices in a single layer for 1 minute on each side or until slightly brown on both sides.
4. Drain on paper towels and serve with parsley as garnish, or drizzle garnish sauce on top.

Broiling method

1. Preheat the oven to broil.
2. Spray 2 cookie sheets with oil. Place the eggplant slices on the sheets in a single layer and spray with oil.
3. Broil on rack closest to the flame for 5 to 7 minutes or until the eggplant slices are slightly brown.
4. Carefully remove the cookie sheets from the oven and flip the eggplant slices with a spatula or food tongs. Spray more oil on the eggplants and return to the oven to broil for additional 5 to 7 minutes.
5. Make the garnish sauce by combining all ingredients.
6. Remove eggplants from the oven and serve with the garnish sauce and chopped parsley.

Yield: serves 4 to 6

Reyna Simnegar‘s Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love is now available. 

Gal Beckerman Accepts 2010 Jewish Book of the Year Award

Friday, March 11, 2011 | Permalink

On Wednesday, March 9th, Gal Beckerman accepted the 2010 Jewish Book of the Year Award for When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. His ceremony remarks follow:

I’m extremely humbled to have won this award. I truly can’t think of a greater honor than to receive a prize that so many giants have received before me – Amoz Oz, Michael Oren, Jonathan Sarna, Joseph Telushkin, to name just a few. On top of that, to be here on the same evening that we honor the legendary Cynthia Ozick, is just truly more than I could have ever hoped for.

The last time I can remember feeling so completely humbled had to be when I walked into Houghton Mifflin’s offices for the first time in 2004 to meet with an editor who was interested in the book.  I was 27 and very nervous and so I dressed in a suit, trying to look as serious as possible. The editor, Jane Rosenman, kind of sized me up, looking me up and down, and finally said, “You look so young. I bet the last time you wore that suit was your Bar Mitzvah.”

Hopefully I’ve made a little progress since then.

It’s actually very special for me that Cynthia Ozick should be here. I used a wonderful metaphor of hers for the book’s epigraph and it’s one I’d like to discuss a bit this evening. The line is about a shofar and it comes from a 1970 essay she wrote about the need for Jewish writers in America to draw on their own tradition for inspiration. This is what she wrote: “If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar, we will be heard far. But if we choose to be Mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wide part, we will not be heard at all; for us, America will have been in vain.”

It’s an image that also helps explain a lot about the Soviet Jewry movement and why it had such a profound affect on American Jews. To borrow her metaphor, my book is the history of this community learning for the first time just how far they could be heard if the blew out of the narrow end of the shofar.

Put another way, it’s a story of recalibration. American Jewish identity has always been a struggle between, on the one hand, a commitment to universal, humanistic, deeply-held American values and on the other, a pull towards a tribal, particularistic, Jewish identity. The movement balanced these two allegiances better than at any other moment in our history.

We learned that by blowing out of the narrow end of the shofar, we could more effectively express our hopes for humankind — that being American, fully American, did not mean subsuming the particular to the universal, but using the particular to make the universal sing. The result was not just the freedom of fellow Jews who were in need of help. Through their activism, American Jews put human rights at the center of American foreign policy – a legacy we still feel today.

The beauty of the movement – and the one element, more than any other, that led to its success and, personally, allowed it to sustain my interest all these years – was its power to bridge so many divides. This was a movement embraced as both an anti-Communist cause by those on the right and a human rights struggle for those on the left. It was a priority of Carter’s no less than of Reagan’s. A very broad swathe of people marched under the banner of the Soviet Jewry movement, a banner that I sometimes like to say was pulled taut between two poles, with Meir Kahane, the extremist right-wing rabbi who was the very paragon of Jewish tribalism gone awry, holding up one, and Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet democracy activist, holding up the other.

In February 1986 – 25 years ago last month – when Anatoly Sharansky, a fighter both for Soviet Jewry and human rights, finally walked to freedom after nine years in Soviet prisons, there was much anxiety about what his ideological orientation might be once he was in the West. His wife Avital, who had tirelessly campaigned on his behalf all those years, had become very close with the right-wing religious settler movement, Gush Emunim, and many people wondered how Sharansky would possibly reconcile this with his identity as a human rights activist. A journalist posed the question to Yehuda Amichai, Israel’s greatest poet, and he had a telling answer. “I hope they don’t ruin him,” he said. “He’s the last one who belongs to all of us.”

This was indeed a movement that belonged to all of us. But was it the last? Do Jews have anything like this today? It’s a question I get asked almost every time I talk about the book to Jewish audiences. And the truth is that I don’t think we do. Israel certainly doesn’t serve this unifying purpose. The same interests that overlapped so harmoniously on Soviet Jewry are vehemently opposed to one another when it comes to Israel. There are some Jews today who hear the words “human rights” and assume it must be some veiled threat against the Jewish state. And on the other side, there are those who see in Israel a nefarious force, enthralled only to its worst angels and incapable of acting for the good of the world.

I feel a deep sadness whenever I tried to compare the clarity of purpose that must have accompanied being a part of a cause like Soviet Jewry with the kinds of hard choices and often compromises young American Jews feel they have to navigate today when they decide to have some kind of active Jewish identity.

What I tell those people who ask me about replicating the movement is that I’m not sure its possible. There was so much about the historical context, about the particularities of the Cold War itself, which also helped account for its success. But what I can do is identify what worked without trying to prescribe how it might work again.

can say that understanding which end of the shofar to blow out of certainly was crucial – tapping into the history, culture and humanistic values of Judaism gave the community the backbone it needed to try and alter history.

But it was equally important that this movement worked towards goals that were indisputably good not just for Jews, but for all people, goals that were in the end about getting the Soviet Union to respect basic human rights. As a human right, freedom of movement is, after all, always the first step to bringing down any totalitarian society. When you can leave, you can vote with your feet.

There is reason to be hopeful in just knowing that that such a movement happened, that these disparate elements came together, that the universal and particular overlapped in this special way, and it means that the potential exists for it to happen again.

But first we have to escape from a Jewish parochialism that blinds us to the rest of the world. And at the same time, we have to abandon the unrealistic – however laudable – notion that we can be a light unto the nations. Between these two, is where I believe the potential exists: that we can achieve a good that not only helps ourselves as Jews, as members of a tribe, but that also changes humanity for the better.

If there is one big lesson then that I learned about my own people from writing this book, it is that this potential, though too often squandered, is in the end our greatest strength.

I’ve been told to avoid thank yous, which is actually a very hard thing to do on a day like today when I feel so grateful to the help and support of so many people who have believed in me and this project for so long. Suffice it to say then that to those people – and you know who you are – I could not have done this without you.

Thank you.

Sharon Pomerantz Reflects on TribeFest

Friday, March 11, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Earlier this week, the Jewish Book Council sent a few NETWORK authors to TribeFest. We set up two panels:





Upon returning from Vegas (to attend the National Jewish Book Award ceremony!), Sharon sent us the following reflections on her experience:

Tribefest at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas attracted about 1200-1400  young Jews (I heard different estimates as the day went on). The diversity was staggering–Hasidic, Conservative, modern Orthodox, Reform, Ashkenaz and Sephardic; singles and parents with children; transexual, gay and lesbian Jews; Jews by Choice; Israeli and Canadian Jews; Jews from cities and small towns across America, Jews who rap and do stand-up, Jews in sports–I could go on and on.

My session with Josh Braff was a lot of fun. His book, Peep Show, is an interesting pairing with Rich Boy, as it’s about an Orthodox family in the strip club/peep show business in New York City in the 1970s. That’s the same time Robert Vishniak comes to New York City as a cab driver, though his eyes are on Park Avenue, not 42nd Street (that’s more his brother’s realm). The audience of about 100+ people asked terrific questions, about the writing process, morality and fiction, the future of the publishing industry, and, my favorite question–what makes a book Jewish?

There was a lot of blogging, tweeting, Facebooking and general use of technology at the event. I spent some time with my friend, Esther Kustanowitz, blogger and tweeter extraordinaire (Esther was “blogging” and “tweeting” about Jewish issues back when few of us knew what those words meant). To get to the sessions, we had to walk through the casino. I come from a family of very passionate gamblers, and though I did restrain myself, I managed to make what my  late father would call “a small donation” to the casinos.

The economy of Las Vegas can certainly use the tourist dollars. My cab driver and several others I encountered outside the event told me quite a tale of woe–the state of Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation, is tops in home foreclosures and car and truck repossessions. The tourist industry, obviously, is hurting and I was told to “tell my friends to come to Las Vegas” more times than I can say. So in that way, holding Tribefest in Las Vegas was a mitzvah.

Ruth Wisse and her Friends

Friday, March 11, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Ruth Wisse has been writing for Tablet this week about her friendships with various intellectual giants of the 20th century. The pieces are  great – candid and eloquent and  she doesn’t shy away from talking about how political differences arose and caused tensions in these relationships. A must read:

Part I: The Novelist (Saul Bellow)

Part II: The Socialist (Irving Howe)

Part III: The Pugilist (Norman Podhoretz)

Cynthia Ozick Accepts Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Friday, March 11, 2011 | Permalink

On Wednesday, March 9th, the Jewish Book Council was pleased to present Cynthia Ozick, “the grande dame of Jewish literature,” with the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award. JBC Board member, Francine Klagsbrun, an author of several acclaimed books and a regular columnist for the New York Jewish Week, presented Ozick with the award. Both remarks follow:

Francine Klagsbrun–

I call her Shoshana, She calls me Aliza. We have used these Hebrew names since we first became friends almost forty years ago. So how do you speak, in two minutes, about a friend whom you love, admire, and recognize as one of the great writers of our time—of all time? You speak first, I believe, about her majestic language. Is there another writer who can make you feel a heat wave as Cynthia Ozick does in Foreign Bodies, her new novel, when she tells, among other things, how “Hot steam hissed from the wet rings left by wine glasses on the steel tables of outdoor cafes”? Is there another writer who can make you see, as Cynthia does, “a delicate young oak, with burly roots like the toes of a gryphon exposed in the wet ground”? That, the tree on which the “Pagan Rabbi” hanged himself.

To speak of Cynthia Ozick is to speak also of magical storytelling and indelible characters. Is there another—will there ever be—another character like Ruth Puttermesser, that funny, bookish, Jewish lawyer with the wild imagination, who creates a female golem, becomes mayor of New York, and is brutally murdered only to go to Paradise and discover that “the secret meaning of Paradise is that it too is hell.” Ruth Puttermesser, whom, I suspect, has a little of Cynthia Ozick in her.

And to speak of Cynthia Ozick, is, of course, to speak of the Jewish soul and sensibility that seep into all her works. Tonight we pay tribute especially to the pride, wisdom, learning—and fearlessness—with which she has written Jewishly and shown the way for younger writers to do so. Foreign Bodies, her novel, is not a “Jewish book,” as such. Its themes are broad and wide. Yet this book gives us an unforgettable image of Europe seven years after the Holocaust as a place that one character calls Nineveh, the sinful land in the book of Jonah.

Cynthia Ozick will never put aside her rage at the Holocaust, but she has not limited herself to it in illumining the Jewish landscape. Along with fiction, she has written essays on Sholem Aleichem and Gershom Scholem, on Franz Kafka and Anne Frank, to name a very few. Her Jewish soul and Jewish sensibility have touched and taught the entire world. For us, in the Jewish world, she has been a beracha, a gift, a blessing, an unending source of joy and wonder.

Dearest Shoshana, it is an enormous honor for me to give you the Jewish Book Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Cynthia Ozick–

Thank you for this unexpected and beautiful honor. Thank you, distinguished eminences of the Jewish Book Council! Thank you, Carolyn Hessel! And from the bottom of my soul, thank you, Francine Klagsbrun, for your friendship and its million extravagant kindnesses, of which your words just now are the most electrifyingly generous. Nevertheless I hope, in the face of so much to be grateful for, that you will not be disconcerted if I dare to rename this moving and inspiriting award, if only for this one occasion. The reason is this: “Lifetime Achievement” doesn’t quite fit the case. Call it, instead, the “Lifetime Starting-Out” award — since a writer, no matter how long she has worn her white hairs, is always starting out, is always beginning again, is always in doubt of how to begin, and is always in need of shoring-up. So it is with your magnanimous encouragement tonight that I offer a handful of reflections on what it is to write as a Jew in America. You will see that these are starting-out thoughts. I started out with them long, long ago, and I am still at the beginning of trying to figure out what they might portend.

Lionel Trilling, one of the most influential literary critics of the century we have so recently left behind, and the first Jew to have been officially appointed professor of English at Columbia University, is remembered in particular for two Jewishly oriented statements, one more shocking than the other. “Being a Jew,” he wrote, “is like walking in the wind or swimming; you are touched at all points and conscious everywhere.” Now what is notable about this comment, uttered by a man of grandly capacious intellect, is that it is all sensation, even physical sensation: it suggests a kind of watchful trembling. There is nothing in it of Jewish civilization or culture or history or heritage or even bookishness. But the second statement, by contrast, is nothing but literary in intention; and its intention is wrapped in fear. “I know of no writer in English,” Trilling insisted, “who has added a micromillimeter to his stature by ‘realizing his Jewishness,’ although I know of some who have curtailed their stature by trying to heighten their Jewish consciousness.” The phrase “realizing his Jewishness,” by the way, appears in quotes, to let us know it is meant to be spoken in derision. This deeply vulnerable remark — we might even call it cowardly — is not especially surprising from a man who had to fight to be admitted to a university English department at a time when Jews were told they would not “fit in.”

But set against this self-suppression a declaration by a Jewish writer who was Trilling’s contemporary, and who, unlike Trilling, was fearless, and whose stature, precisely because of this fearlessness, is assured and lasting. Saul Bellow, speaking of his early immersion in American literary classics, proclaimed “no barriers to the freest and fullest American choices. . . . It was admiration, it was love that drew us to the dazzling company of the great masters, all of them belonging to the Protestant Majority — some of them explicitly anti-Semitic. But one could not submit to control by such prejudices. My own view,” he went on, “was that in religion the Christians had lived with us, had lived in the Bible of the Jews, but when the Jews wished to live in Western history with them, they were refused. As if that history was not, by now, also ours.”

Trilling meekly accepted that the Jewish mind and its gifts were outside history’s mainstream. But Bellow refused to be refused, and in announcing that the legacy of Western history was also the Jewish legacy, he aspired to the acme of literary power, and himself joined that dazzling company of the great masters. By now, of course, English departments everywhere have a full roster of Jewish professors, and there are numerous Jewish presidents of distinguished universities. As for Jewish writers, their freedom of self-expression can no longer be disputed anywhere. Wherever literature flourishes, Jewish books proliferate, and the younger writers in their ambitious and energetic battalions startle us with unexpected societal perspectives or fresh interpretations of inherited themes. In Israel: the ancient landscape and the ancient language, each made new. In America: a fourth, or even a fifth, native-born generation for whom the mythos of immigration is a remote and faint echo; and at the same time an influx of brilliant young immigrants catapulted from Soviet suffocation into the American language. And into the free streaming of Jewish wit, Jewish memory, Jewish laughter and Jewish hurts.

Of both America and Israel, it can be said that Kafka, or rather the tormented Kafkan sensibility, is finally overcome. Kafka’s forlorn perception of a Jew writing in German — of himself writing in German — was that of a helplessly struggling beast without a secure hold on the language that is his singular birthright. He described such Jews as having their hind legs “still stuck in parental Judaism while their forelegs found no purchase on new ground.” He called this quandary — or quagmire — “the impossibility of writing German,” even as he recognized the more painful “impossibility of not writing” at all. Every born writer in every language will feel the impossibility of not writing, but who can imagine a native Israeli writer contemplating the impossibility of writing Hebrew, or a Jewish writer in America despairing of the possibility of writing English? The parental Judaism, as Kafka terms it, finds easy purchase in both environments. Kafka’s dilemma in the linguistically threatening confusions of Prague, where he lived through anti-Semitic street rioting, is hardly ours. American Jewish writers are, incontrovertibly, the confident and sovereign owners of the American language.

But what of Hebrew, the indispensable classical and contemporary carrier of the parental Judaism? Only recall that legendary debate, in Jerusalem in the 1950s, between two renowned Jewish Nobel laureates, Saul Bellow and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. Agnon asked Bellow whether his novels had been published in Hebrew. Not yet, Bellow replied. Too bad, Agnon said, because the work of Jewish writers in Diaspora languages is bound to be ephemeral; it will never last. Bellow countered with the example of Heinrich Heine, whose poetry had entered German folk memory to such an extent that even Hitler’s most zealous book burners could not suppress it. Of course, by offering Heine, Bellow was implicitly defending his own status as a Jew writing in the American language. “Heine?” retorted Agnon, meaning to needle his visitor. “Oh, but we have him beautifully translated into Hebrew. He is safe.” Yet neither Bellow nor Agnon appeared to notice the still deeper irony of this impassioned conversation. Bellow’s Hebrew was imperfect. Agnon’s English was imperfect. So there they were, the champion of the American language and the champion of the Hebrew language, each championing his cause in . . . Yiddish! Yiddish too, it should not be forgotten, is an indispensable carrier of the Jewish literary mind.

Owners of the American language though we are, there is sometimes a certain veil of separation. It is rarely felt, but I remember a time, not so long ago, when I felt it with a kind of anguish. It came during several hours of joy, it came simultaneously with that joy: a contradiction of emotions. I had found myself in the company of three renowned writers, as celebrated by their readers as they were sublime in their prose. We four sat together at a little tea table, and I was swept away: the wit flew, the literary gossip danced along, the ideas intensified, the braininess was thrillingly rampant, all without cynicism or sarcasm or spite, good talk flowing freely in waves of sympathy and friendship. Ingrained in these superior minds, I saw, was a noble genuineness and a heartfelt honesty. And at the end of that intoxicating evening, when it was all over and I was back home again, I fell instantly into an abyss of shame and despair, a sadness so unstoppable as to be close to grieving. It was the year before the Twin Towers atrocities; America was still cocooned in its innocence of terrorism. But as we sat there, all of us charmed by the talk, the second intifada, so-called, was at that very moment decimating the cities of Israel — day after day buses were being blown up, cafés, groceries, baby carriages, torn bodies strewn bloodily in the streets, murderousness heaped on murderousness. Yet for my companions at that exhilarating little table it was all remote. They were untouched. It was not that they would have been incapable of being touched if it had come into their thoughts — but it did not live in their thoughts, it was not an element of their lives. Whereas for me it was the sorrowing center of every breath.

It goes without saying that as a writer I was in possession of the whole of my companions’ world: culturally speaking, there was nothing that they possessed that I did not equally possess. In a literary sense we had everything in common. But my grief was absent from their ken. A membrane of separation hung between us, and left me orphaned and alone. And this membrane, this frequently opaque veil, is part of what it is to be a Jewish writer in America. It may not, it will not, define our common subject matter; but it defines our subjectivity: the historic frailty of Jewish lives, the perilous contingency of the ordinary. And it can lead to a sort of credo of choosing. Trilling or Bellow? Vulnerability or fearlessness? Cowardice or courage? To own the American language is a glory in itself; but even more significant is the power to pierce the veil. At that jubilant little table I was abysmally at fault. It was I who had orphaned myself. I did not speak of what I felt, of what I dreaded, I did not tell my sorrowing. I let it lie sequestered and apart, like a secret. Perhaps I was reluctant, in so harmonious an atmosphere, to introduce the depravity of terror — though in a very few months it would introduce itself, horribly, in New York, not far from our little table. Participating wholly in American writerliness, I failed to reciprocate: I did not summon American writerliness into my Jewish subjectivity. That night, I chose Trilling’s way over Bellow’s, and I have regretted it ever since.

Every language carries history in its sinews and bones. If you look hard at the inmost structure of the word “beauty,” you will see the Norman Conquest. It may be the same with writers. The inmost structure of a Jewish writer will carry the history of a long, long procession of Jewish ideas and experiences — and this will hold whether the writer wishes to abandon or cultivate those ideas and experiences. In either case, they must be grappled with. Here Trilling’s images of wind and water turn out to be apt. Realizing one’s Jewish consciousness, as he put it while putting it down, is finally not to curtail; instead, it unfurls a sail. And when the sail is in place, the voyage can begin.

Please know the depth of my gratitude for this signal recognition. Since I am just starting out, I hope I may some day be worthy of it.

We need your recipes!

Thursday, March 10, 2011 | Permalink

Does Everyone Kvell over your Kugel? Do You Get Bravos for Your Brisket or Borekas? The Jewish Book Council Needs Your Favorite Recipes for a New Kosher Cookbook!

The Jewish Book Council is creating a book on Jews and food that is part cookbook, part commentary, part history and all delicious. The book will feature contributions from celebrity chefs to home cooks like you about the Jewish food that matters to them, why it does, and the recipes to make it. The JBC is soliciting recipes and stories from Jewish cooks across the country to to bring the entire community together around the one thing everyone loves: wonderful food to eat.

Recipes should be kosher, or at least not mix milk and meat or use non-kosher foods (such as pork, shellfish, etc.), but if you have a great Jewish recipe that isn’t totally kosher, we can figure out ways to adjust it so it meets kosher guidelines.

Go to: the JBC cookbook submission page to have your recipe and story considered for inclusion in the book. The Jewish Book Council will let you know if your recipe has been selected. Please send all recipes in by May 1, 2011

And, to hold you over until the cookbook’s published, Leah Koenig (author ofThe Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen) shares the essential global Jewish cookbooks at Saveur: Essential Global Jewish Cookbooks.

JBC Bookshelf: Expanded Edition

Tuesday, March 08, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In an effort to create some pre-book award ceremony (tomorrow!!) order in my life, I’ve finally gone through some of the spring titles that have come across my desk. Sorting through the newbies, there’s  a wonderful assortment of fiction, poetry, Israel studies, Passover haggadahs, and memoirs. A few of the highlights are below, and stayed tuned for next week’s guest blogger Reyna Simnegar‘s posts…a special pre-Purim treat (Reyna is the author if the recently published Persian Food from the Non-persian Bride: And Other Sephardic Kosher Recipes You Will Love).


A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, Daniel Byman (June 2011, Oxford University Press)

The Road to Fatima Gate: The Beirut Spring, the Rise of Hezbollah, and the Iranian War Against Israel, Michael J. Totten (April 2011, Encounter Books)
Interested in the topic? Check out last year’s NETWORK author Thanassis Cambanis, who recently spoke for us at a Birthright alumni event

Peace in the Making. The Menachem Begin – Anwar Sadat Personal Correspondence, Harry Hurwitz and Yisrael Medad (January 2011, Gefen Publishing House)


Creating Lively Passover Seders: A Sourcebook of Engaging Tales, Texts & Activities, David Arnow (March 2011, Jewish Lights Publishing)
This is the expanded edition with new chapters

Haggadah in Another Dimension Celebrating in 3D, Michael Medina, Emi Sfard, Eli Neeman (Kippod3D)

The Szyk Haggadah, Arthur Szyk, Byron L. Sherwin with Irvin Ungar (April 2011, Abrams)


Tel Aviv Stories, Ashley Rindsberg (2010, Midnight Oil Publishing)

Foreplay: Hannah Arendt, the Two Adornos, and Walter Benjamin, a play by Carl Djerassi (April 2011, University of Wisconsin Press)
A new play detailed the private lives of some of the greatest figures of the 20th century German intellectual scene

The Oriental Wife, Evelyn Toynton (July 2011, Other Press)
A tale of love, tragedy, and betrayal among Jewish immigrants caught in the conflicting space between Old World values and American ideals

Jerusalem Maiden: A Novel, Talia Carner (May 2011, Harper)
The story of a young woman in early 20th century Jerusalem who struggles with her faith as her desires pull her away from home

Girl Unwrapped, Gabriella Goliger (May 2011, Arsenal Pulp)
A coming-of-age story set in 1960′s Montreal

Folktales of the Jews: Tales from Arab Lands, Dan Ben-Amos with Dov Noy (April 2011, JPS)
The third volume in JPS’s folktale series, which selects and publishes representative tales from the major ethno-linguistic communities in the Jewish world. The first volume, Tales from the Sephardic Dispersion won a National Jewish Book Award.