The ProsenPeople

2011 National Jewish Book Award Guidelines and Submission Forms

Wednesday, June 15, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The guidelines and submission forms for the 2011 National Jewish Book Awards are now available here. This year’s submission deadline is October 5, 2011. NO submissions will be accepted after that date. The winners will be announced in early January, 2012.

Any questions? Email me: Naomi@Jewishbooks.org

Book Cover of the Week: Dreyfus

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The paperback edition of Ruth Harris’s Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century (2010 National Jewish Book Award Winner in Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir) will be available next week:


Reminder: Twitter Book Club Next Wednesday

Friday, June 10, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Dani Crickman

Need a good read for the weekend?

Check out David Bezmozgis’s The Free World, then join our online book discussion with the author Wednesday at lunchtime via #JBCBooks on Twitter!

Details here.

Para Español, Oprima el Dos!

Friday, June 10, 2011 | Permalink

Earlier this weekLevana Kirschenbaum blogged about domestic disputes and gourmet food and Spanish chocolate-chip cookies. She has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Visiting Scribe.

As a language enthusiast I have often deplored the fact that languages, against all wishes, are not contagious or transmissible by any means. In the absence of some reliable formal base, except for some language geniuses there is rarely ever a way to just “pick up” a language, in the streets as it were, and I have often noted with some dismay that Arabic and French, in which I conduct many conversations with my relatives in my husband and children’s presence, remain hopelessly impenetrable to them.

When I arrived in New York almost forty years ago, I settled in Washington Heights. To my mother’s question, “Are you at least learning a little English?” I remember replying, without any sarcasm, “Non, Maman. In New York no one speaks English. They only speak Spanish, and I am not learning that either!” Almost nothing has changed in the Heights!

In my long years as a restaurateur and caterer, there was no missing the fact that an overwhelming majority of kitchen employees speak Spanish, and Spanish only. We would step up the body language in creative and often comical ways to communicate our wishes to our crew. But sometimes even that proved not to be enough. Like the day Delfina, a shy new girl, started working with us, moving very slowly. I asked Flora, who worked with me both in my kitchen and at my house, and who was somewhat bilingual, to interpret for me. “Explain to Delfina,” I started, “the importance of working as a team, at a brisk pace, so no one is forced to pick up the slack, etc….”

The bewildering translation of my little speech was a brutal jab in poor Delfina’s ribs, and a single word delivered in a bark: “Avanza!”

That was the day I decided to register for a ten-hour basic Spanish course, just so I could give my own orders in my own kitchen in my own personal style, thank you very much! Oh I wasn’t terribly ambitious, and to this day I serve all my Spanish verbs totally un-declined: Nature, as we say in French. I remember our lovely and very pregnant Spanishteacher, Martha, ecstatically pointing to her belly for a virtual introduction to named and unborn baby Maya, still in her maternal wrappings. On the last Spanish class day, I brought a homemade apple cake (which I had smugly labeled “Torta de Manzana”) and a taping of the wonderful Hebrew lullaby song “Maya,” which we played over our farewell breakfast. We watched Profesora Martha go to pieces. I asked her jokingly why Flora (better known as “Foya” to my tiny son Yakov who was crazy about her: I can still see him rolling up her shirt sleeve to plant wet kisses on a choice plump spot on her arm) always said “Djako, careful when you open the yar of pickles!”

Why couldn’t Yakov just open the jar of pickles? Or why she always said to little Bella before she left for school, “Bellita mi amor, habe a good tine!” why not just have a good time? That made Martha burst out laughing through her joyful tears. Flora and I were quite a team, at work and at home. One day when the hot water supply was cut off for boiler repairs, she urged me “Oy Labana, Dio Mio, don’t inbent no more new dishes today cuz we don’t got no hot water no more!!! Claro patrona?”

Claro Florita!

Here is my Flora-inspired recipe for black bean soup.

Quick Black Bean Chocolate Soup Recipe

Ingredients:

Sofrito:

1/3 cup olive oil
1 large onion, quartered
4 large cloves garlic
4 ribs celery, peeled and cut in thirds
1 large red pepper, seeded and quartered
1 bunch flat parsley, stems and all
1/2 small bunch cilantro, stems cut off
6 cups good quality canned black beans (2 large cans), drained and rinsed
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cups dry red wine
3 tablespoons bottled hot sauce
6 bay leaves, or 1 teaspoon ground
3 quarts (12 cups) water
2/3 cup grated semisweet chocolate or chocolate chips
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon oregano

Directions:

Heat the oil in a heavy pot. Make the sofrito: In a food processor, coarsely grind the onion, garlic, celery, pepper, parsley and cilantro. Add ground mixture to the hot oil, and sauté until translucent. Add the beans, tomato paste, wine, hot sauce, bay leaves and water, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and cook 30 minutes. Add the chocolate, cumin and oregano and cook for 15 minutes more. Adjust texture and seasonings. Serve hot. Makes a dozen servings.

Lévana Kirschenbaum has been blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council. Her most recent book,The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simplewill be available later this month.

If You Will It, It Is No Dream

Tuesday, June 07, 2011 | Permalink

Austin Ratner, 2011 Sami Rohr Prize Winner and author of The Jump Artist, shares his remarks from the 2011 Sami Rohr Priza Gala.

George Rohr (L) and Austin Ratner (R)

82 years ago Philippe Halsman wrote a letter to his girlfriend Ruth Romer from his prison cell in Innsbruck, Austria.

He wrote: “Tell me Ruth have you ever dreamt you were flying?”

And I want to say a few words about flying.

***
Everyone dreams of flying, at least occasionally, don’t they? I had a recurrent dream as a child that by assuming a certain position, I could sneak my feet off the ground without resting my hands anywhere, achieving levitation as it were by catching gravity unawares.

Such a dream is a concrete expression of a wish –the wish to defy the inexorable laws of the universe, such as gravity, which claims the dead as they fall and holds them to the earth, never to rise again.

The wish to rise up, and its predicate – a sense of vulnerability, and a dread of extinction –these feelings pervade Jewish history and Jewish storytelling.

There is the winged seraph of the Book of Isaiah and other angels aloft with the power of an almighty God.

There is the biblical theme of aliyah, ascent, to the land of Israel as an elusive ideal, a sort of heaven on earth protected by god from murderous enemies, from drought, disease, and famine – a deliverance from death.

Even Superman is Jewish. (He’s also from Cleveland.) In 1932 a Jewish man from Cleveland named Mitchell Siegel died in a robbery of his clothing store. The next year his son Jerry, and a friend Joe Shuster, created the Superman story in an evident attempt to make sense of this tragic event.

Superman himself is an orphan, but without Jerry Siegel and his father’s earthbound vulnerabilities.

***
Philippe Halsman’s life story is almost as paradigmatic. But his story, while as tragic and romantic as Superman’s, is also real.

His father fell, and he arose. The Nazi doctor Karl Meixner photographed his father’s corpse and years later Halsman photographed Judge Learned Hand, at age 87, jumping in the air, floating in the plasma of suspended time that is a photograph.

He went to prison and was freed by the French minister of aviation, Paul Painlevé, a former Dreyfusard and one of the first passengers of Wilbur and Orville Wright.

***
The fact is, as of 108 years ago, people can truly fly. Human beings realized that longstanding dream, among many others, through experiment, struggle, error, and persistence.

It isn’t the superheroic flight of levitating at will. It’s flight burdened with the complexities of reality – such as terrifyingly loud toilets and the unlikely event of a water landing – but it’s flight nevertheless, up in the clouds.

The story of the founding of Israel is so compelling because it is an improbable, romantic dream made into a reality, however fraught with complexity that reality may be.

In a smaller way, the Rohr prize echoes that notion of Theodor Herzl’s: “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Writers spell out dreams and visions on the page, of course. Theodor Herzl was a writer – for the same Vienna newspaper in which Sigmund Freud defended Philippe Halsman, one notes – and so was Superman – his day job was as a beat reporter for the Daily Planet. That’s right. Superman was a Jewish writer from Cleveland. And don’t forget it.

And though an artist doesn’t intend his creations to walk the earth, he does hope to create an object of beauty and meaning in the real world – a real world that’s often harsh and indifferent toward its artists.

As the character Lousteau says of the life of a novelist in Balzac’s Lost Illusions:

“You will have ruined your life and your stomach to give life to this creation, and you will be libeled, betrayed, sold, consigned by journalists to the lagoons of oblivion, buried by your best friends.”

Similarly, Gustave Flaubert remarked during the composition of Madame Bovary:

“I am leading an austere life, stripped of all external pleasure, and am sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy, which sometimes makes me weep tears of impotence but never abates. I love my work with a love that is frantic and perverted, as an ascetic loves the hair shirt that scratches his belly.”

And the reward for all that sacrifice may be nothing in a society that, according to Flaubert, has the following attitude to great literature:

“It knows that [the classics] exist, would be sorry if they didn’t, realizes that they serve some vague purpose, but makes no use of them and finds them very boring.”

***

Sana Krasikov (L) and Austin Ratner (R)

For a writer, each story, each book, each submission, is a zeppelin full of hope, many of which are doomed to descend in flames.

This prize not only keeps aloft writers’ hopes, but helps defend a place on earth for the existence of art. Physics doesn’t favor the arts, but the Rohr family does.

I don’t pretend that my fellow nominees are undeserving of this prize, or that I’m the only one who might have won it. I congratulate them whole-heartedly and at the same time I hope they won’t begrudge me the right to celebrate today.

Making this book a reality was for me an existential struggle that seemed at many points as if it would end in despair – with years of my life wasted by labor over a book that nobody cared to read. Yet I persisted.

And after all that, this prize is so redeeming of the struggle. It makes me feel that deep satisfaction of making a good and lofty dream come true in reality, against all odds. It makes me feel myself like Philippe Halsman, the Jump Artist.

Winner Austin Ratner (The Jump Artist) Celebrates

Austin Ratner is the author of The Jump Artist. Read more by Austin on the JBC/MJL Author Blog series here and read a mini-essay he wrote on Mark Helprin’s Ellis Island here.

Chocolate chip cookies: CCC? Sisisi!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011 | Permalink

YesterdayLévana Kirschenbaum blogged about domestic disputes and gourmet food. She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s author blogging series.

We all think of cookies as a short-lived and vaguely illicit pleasure. Except I honestly don’t think, and you can ask anyone, there’s a cookie in the world more worshipped and more baked than my smart little chocolate chip cookie. I will attempt to give you an idea just how much mileage it gets.

The first time my daughter Bella went away to summer camp, I asked her what she would like me to bring her on visiting day, and she said with great glee: duh, chocolate chip cookies, mom, what else?  For her and her bunkmates. And, lots of them for the long hot summer ahead.

I made a gigantic batch, filled an oversized canister with (four hundred!) chocolate chip cookies and brought it along to camp. Bella called me the very next day, gushing: “Wow, thank you so much, Mommy. Everyone loved your cookies. Even the driver had some. They are all gone. The whole entire camp agrees: Your cookies rule!” My daughter couldn’t have known that, right there and then, she had become inadvertently responsible for something very important in my summer life: The abolition of the care package custom. They’ll all eat my cookies when they come home, period!

A couple years after this delicious fiasco, at a particularly painful period marked by multiple terror attacks in Israel (the year following the fateful events of 9/11), my children and I and a few dear friends put our heads together to come up with the best possible community fund-raiser project that would benefit the terror victims. The emerging idea was to do something fun. Something that could be an antidote to the prevailing somber mood, and would bring people of all ages and all walks of life together. There was no hesitation: Make a million cookies and sell them online, was the unanimous answer. As soon as the idea took shape, we all got cracking. I asked the administrator of the JCC Manhattan if she would let us bake in their kitchen, and I always remember her answer with a chuckle: “The Million Cookie Project! I don’t know what I was smoking when I agreed to this, but I know it will be lots of fun.” It took us a couple months to put everything in place: A giant mixer, mountains of ingredients, the perfect design for the cookie boxes, staffers in charge of scheduling the volunteer baking shifts, trucks for transport. The most wonderful- and wonderfully chaotic – summer followed, with busses full of camp children pouring into the kitchen for the morning shift, then other kids coming for the afternoon shift, followed by the dizzyingly cosmopolitan, multilingual and multi-denominational evening crowds: these included TV and newspaper crews, celebrities, aspiring actors, illustrators, story tellers. “We’re baking cookies to raise a lot of dough!” read one headline. “Your cookies are weapons of mass destruction!” said one volunteer. “You mean weapons of mass construction” replied another, pointing to her ample hips. Little Tzipporah, now a beautiful young lady, refused to go to day camp, preferring to spend her mornings with me and other big people, and sat precariously perched on a high stool, straining to apply the hot seal on the little blue cookie boxes before she dropped them into cartons. We all baked, schmoozed, packaged, sealed, transported, filled orders and loaded trucks till we dropped. And dropped we finally did, at the end of that summer, with a little over a million chocolate chip cookies baked and sold, and all proceeds sent to Israel. This is why I am forever known as the cookie lady.

Just this year, a health site (www.HealthCastle.com) approached me to ask permission to use my chocolate chip cookie recipe, which would face off against a couple hundred other recipes: The goal was to try all recipes in a test kitchen over the course of three months, and determine which recipe tasted best within the most wholesome guidelines: Mine won!

I do have one bittersweet memory, just one, associated with my cookies: One very rainy day during summer camp in the mountains, Esther, who ran the camp, asked if I would mind spending the afternoon making cookies with the children. I arrived to find a hundred kids jumping up and down with excitement. Everything was laid out impeccably on a giant kitchen table, we just needed to make the batter, then shape and bake the cookies. With all the little helping hands we had, we made hundreds of cookies in no time, and they kept coming out of the oven, fast and furious. It’s all the kids could do to keep their hands from getting scorched while the cookies were cooling off. Wow, they would exclaim, delighted, each time a tray was pulled out of the oven: they rose like crazy! The children were right, I thought, puzzled: they look like cookies on steroids! One of the children spit out the cookie she had just tasted …. and made a disgusted face, causing total consternation. We soon found out why. While making the cookies, we ran short just half a cup sugar, and one of the girls ran to a kitchen cabinet and took out …. sea salt she found in a little sugar bowl, and measured half a cup into the batter. We had to throw all of them out; the children were inconsolable (and Esther’s mother, a Holocaust survivor, cried at the thought of throwing away food, no matter how flawed….), until the next day when we started a whole new giant batch. “We’re baking cookies again?” Esther asked with a wink. “Sure! With or without salt?”

My Famous Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

Ingredients:

2 eggs (if you can’t have eggs: 2 tablespoons flax meal mixed with 1/3 cup warm water)

½ cup sugar

1 cup packed brown sugar or Sucanat

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2½ cups flour: all-purpose, whole wheat pastry, spelt (gluten-free—any GF flour, such as brown rice flour)

¾ teaspoon baking powder

¾ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

1½ cups semisweet chocolate chips, best quality

½ chopped nuts, optional

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375ºF. Cream the eggs and sugars in a food processor or with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add the oil and vanilla and mix in thoroughly. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and pulse (or mix at low speed) until just combined. Fold in the chips and nuts (if using) by hand. Drop the cookies in heaping teaspoonfuls onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, 1 inch apart.

Bake 10 minutes. The cookies will firm up as they cool, so do not be tempted to bake them longer, or they will harden. Bake only one tray at a time. Store at room temperature in tin boxes. Separate each layer of cookies with foil or wax paper so they don’t stick together. Makes about 4 dozen.

Lévana Kirschenbaum‘s most recent book,  The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simplewill be available later this month.

Jewish Books: The Building Blocks of Jewish Life

Monday, June 06, 2011 | Permalink

[Remarks by Deborah Lipstadt at the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature]

A number of years ago I agreed to teach a Jewish Studies course at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, a school which trains ministers for Methodist and AME churches.  The School tries to ensure that every student who graduates from the program will have the opportunity to take at least one course on a topic related to Jewish Studies before they graduate.

Generally the Jewish Studies faculty rotates the teaching of this class.  Each faculty member offers a course based on their own area of specialization: rabbinics, medieval history, modern history, theology, literature and so forth.

That year it was my turn to teach the course.   A few months before the course was to begin the Theology School’s registrar called and asked me to send over the course title and description.  I did.  Shortly thereafter I received a call from the office of the Dean of the school: “Deborah.  Are you sure this is the course you wish to teach?”  “Yes,” I answered. “Is there something wrong?”  “No, not at all.  It’s just not what we expected. We were just checking to make sure we got it right.”

The course I had proposed teaching was “Introduction to Judaism: The Beliefs and Practices of Judaism.”  It was to be a basic introduction to Judaism.  Why then the confusion?  Because I am a professor of Holocaust Studies.  That is the title of my chair and my area of expertise.  The school assumed that I would teach a course in that area.

When we uncovered why the confusion, I said to the Dean: “If your students, who are going to be Christian Ministers are going to take one course in Jewish Studies prior to their ordination it should be about Jew as subject, NOT Jew asobject.  It should be about what Jews do and NOT what was done to Jews.  It should address how Jews lived NOT how they died.  The dean agreed and I proceeded to teach a successful class.

I did not then and do not tonight, in any manner, shape, or form, intend to denigrate the importance of Holocaust studies or Holocaust courses.  I would not have devoted my entire career to the topic if I did not think it was of great scholarly and didactic importance.  I would not have invested years in fighting Holocaust deniers – both inside the courtroom and outside of it – if I did not think study of the topic was crucial.   Moreover, there is much left to be studied and researched.  The next generations of Holocaust survivors are doing exciting and important work.   I encourage young scholars to work in this field.

But tonight I come before you with a different message.  Even as we continue vigorous research and investigation of the Holocaust, we as a community must maintain our vigilance against the possibility of transmitting to younger generations of Jews the message that the thing which binds us, what is distinctive about our culture and our history, is what was done to us.

If the main thing the next generations know about Jewish history is that we were persecuted and suffered, they will lose sight of the tremendous heritage of Jewish culture, theology, and wisdom.  There is the danger that they will assume that what distinguishes us is the attempts by others, those who cannot abide our existence, to destroy us.

Long ago the revered scholar of Jewish history, Columbia Professor Salo W. Baron, who was the first person to occupy a chair in Jewish history at a distinguished American university, warned against succumbing to a lachrymose view of Jewish history.

Baron worried that people would glean the impression that the Jewish experience was naught but a string of persecutions, expulsion, pogroms, and other forms of devastations.  [There is contemporary and far less vigorous version of this theory.  It is entailed in the oft-repeated joke: “What is a Jewish holiday? They tried to kill us. We survived.  Now let’s eat.”]

There were great devastations in Jewish history and Baron did not shy away from studying them.  But he wanted to shine a spotlight on the tremendous bursts of Jewish creativity: poetry, literature, learning, self-rule, and commentaries which marked our history.

So too, let us for just a moment shine a spotlight on contemporary bursts of Jewish creativity.  There is too little time to review all of them so let me just mention institutions and developments which have crossed my email transom in the past week: new Jewish music, Zamir Choral, contemporary Jewish art, the Center for Jewish History, the rejuvenation of Hillel on campus, the proliferation of Chabad houses, Limmud worldwide, and last, but far from least, the hundreds of thousands of students – Jews and non-Jews – who have taken course in Jewish studies on a myriad of different topics.

For these wonderful accomplishments to be overshadowed by the actions of anti-Semites would only compound the tragedy wrought by them. A creative, thoughtful, and accomplished people such as the Jewish people should be known by what they have done and not by what has been done to them.

Fifty years ago there was a vigorous debate in Israel about what should be done to Adolf Eichmann if he were to be found guilty.  Some people were adamant that he should be hung.  Others wanted his death sentence to be commuted. Yet others suggested that, irrespective of whether he was hung or forced to live the rest of his life in jail, he be taken on a sightseeing trip through the length and breadth of the State of Israel.  Let him have to see what we have built. Let him see our kibbutzim and moshavim and our cities built where none existed before.  Let him visit our coffee houses where vigorous debate and discussion goes on continuously.  But above all, take him to our libraries, universities, and theatres.  Take him to the Israeli Philharmonic.  Make him stand in the middle of the campus of the Hebrew University watching students rushing to their classes.  Let him visit the laboratories and the seminar rooms.  Do all this not to change his mind about Jews or to rid him of his anti-Semitism, nothing will do that.  Do it to demonstrate to him that: Mir Zaynen do, we, indeed, are here.  Despite your best efforts to destroy us we survived.  But we have done more than just that: WE THRIVE.

We thrive not, davka l’hachi’is, not just to show the anti-Semites that they cannot destroy us.  We thrive as a people and we thrive as a culture because that is in the Jewish communal DNA.  We create.  We innovate.  We take the old and make it new.  We take the new and infuse it with the best of the old.  That is what, I would argue, Jews mean when, upon returning the Torah to the Aron Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark, during services they say: “Hadesh yameynu kekedem. Renew our days as days of yore.”  Not return us to the past but take the best of the past and let it help shape the new.

And that is what we are doing here tonight.   We are here to celebrate Jewish creativity and culture in the form of the Jewish book.  And how appropriate it is that we do so on the eve ofShavuot, a Jewish holiday which celebrates the giving of THE Book.   It is that book that instructs us, even as we remember how others tried to destroy us, “Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek, Remember what Amalek did to you when you were leaving Egypt, how they attacked you on your way”, also reminds us u’vah’rta ba-chayim, to ultimately “choose life.”  It is that book that teaches us “v’samahta b’hagecha, v’hayita ach sameach.”  “You should rejoice on your holidays and you should be very happy.”

One of the ways in which we choose life, one of the ways in which we show our embrace of life  is by writing, publishing, reading, and celebrating Jewish books.

So tonight let us celebrate the authors who have written a new crop of Jewish books.

Let us celebrate the publishers who publish them.

And let us celebrate the readers, who buy them in print, download them electronically, take them out of the library, and, above all, read them.

Let us also celebrate a family that so treasures Jewish books that it has created this magnificent prize.

Though we are still one week from Shavuot, let us not just celebrate tonight but let us be ach sameach, very very happy indeed.

Thank you very much.

Deborah Lipstadt’s most recent book, The Eichmann Trial is now available.

NETWORK Class ’11-’12: Second Course

Monday, June 06, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Second Course:

Check out the website for Ellen Bari’s Jumping Jenny here.

The New York Times reviews Avner Cohen’s The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb

Rabbi Lau talks about his forthcoming Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last here.

The book trailer for Michael Levin’s Gutenberg to Google: The Rise And Fall Of Books


Loneliness and the Novel

Monday, June 06, 2011 | Permalink

Joseph Skibell, 2011 Sami Rohr Prize Choice Award recipient and author of A Curable Romantic, shares his remarks from the 2011 Sami Rohr Priza Gala.


A month or so ago, when my wife Barbara and I came to New York for the interview that determines the prize winners, we had dinner the night before with a group of cousins and my brother and my brother-in-law, and my Uncle Richard treated for the meal, which was very sweet, and afterwards, everybody said, you know, “If you win, the next meal will be on you.” Most of them are here tonight, and I just want to say … THIS is that meal.

**

So, anyway, years ago, when I was in college, I had breakfast one morning with a friend of mine named Jack. Jack was in a bit of a state. His girlfriend had left him, or he had left his girlfriend. I can’t really remember who had left whom, but Jack was without a girlfriend, and he’d been up all night in the library working on a paper. His subject was Native American imagery in the paintings of Jackson Pollack.

Now, around 4 a.m. or so, he told me, he’s thumbing through a book by D.H. Lawrence, and he stumbles upon an essay entitled “Loneliness and the Novel.” The topic has nothing to do with his research, of course, but everything to do with his current state of mind, and so Jack abandons his own work, and he sits down in the stacks to read this essay, sensing, as one can only sense at four in the morning after a long night of researching shamanism and Carl Jung and synchronicity – and also, I suppose, looking for Native American imagery in the paintings of Jackson Pollack – that perhaps this essay contains a message meant specifically for him.

Lawrence, however, takes ages getting to the topic. He rattles on and on about tenderness and beauty and frailty, discussing all these things in relationship to novel writing, but he never seems to arrive at the subject of loneliness. So finally, confused, Jack flips back to the title page of the essay, and he sees that he’s misread the title. The essay is called “Loveliness and the Novel,” not “Loneliness and the Novel.”

Well, we had a good laugh over that, Jack and I, he ruefully, and I sympathetically, but the truth is “Loneliness and the Novel” sounded right to me. It did then, and it does now, because loneliness seems to me to be a real part of what the novel is all about.

Most of us begin reading seriously in our early adolescents. I spent my childhood on the high plains of West Texas in a little city called Lubbock during the 1970s. This was mostly – not entirely – but mostly post-Beatles, but also pre-Reagan, so I was lucky enough to be educated by people who did not yet think of education as a necessary evil. Still, between the born-again Christian cowboy culture and the grey humorless world inhabited by most of the adults I knew, it could get a little lonely.

Books, however, novels especially – those 9 inch by 6 inch oblong universes constructed (then) out of paper, board and glue – offered a way out of that terrible loneliness. Landlocked in Lubbock, lying on my parents’ sofa in our living room, I could be anywhere in the world: on the road with Jack Kerouac, in some strange mathematical counter-universe with Italo Calvino, or in Vladimir Nabokov’s classroom at Cornell.

As we all know, a good writer is a good companion. At least in their books, I mean. It’s not actually true in real life. But in their books, writers are open, generous, funny, patient, sociable, and dramatic people.

And that’s where those of us who go on to become writers make a terrible mistake, I think. A terrible, a fatal mistake. We assume that because reading books made our lives less lonely, than — kal v’khomer – writing books will make them even more less lonely, and nothing, of course, could be further from the truth.

I spent five years in a room writing A Curable Romantic, and one year in a room – the same room – editing it.

L to R: Josh Lambert, Joseph Skibell, Austin Ratner

Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the company of my characters. And Barbara and I and my protagonist Dr. Sammelsohn traveled all over the world together, doing research in Geneva, in Paris, in Vienna and in Warsaw. I corresponded in Esperanto with Esperantists tra la tuta mondo for this book,and I spent many long hours discussing its themes of personal and political exile, and the scientific disenchantment of modernity and the God-sized hunger for meaning in a world deaf to the cries of the soul with many friends and colleagues.

And yet, it’s only now, upon being welcomed into the Sami Rohr family, and being included in such a stellar group of writers as AustinAllisonJulie and Nadia, and being surrounded by so many remarkable people in the Jewish Book Council, around the Jewish Book Council, on the panel of judges, in the Sami Rohr Institute, that I realize that, yes, my friend Jack got it wrong, but I got it wrong, too. Only D.H. Lawrence got it right.

It’s not loneliness and the Novel, but rather loveliness and the Novel.

And so, I thank you all tonight for making my life as a writer less lonely and more lovely.

Thank you.

Joseph Skibell is the author of A Curable RomanticA Blessing on the Moon, and The English Disease.

Welcome to our Venus-Mars home!

Monday, June 06, 2011 | Permalink

Lévana Kirschenbaum is the author of the forthcoming The Whole Foods Kosher Kitchen: Glorious Meals Pure and Simple (June 22nd). She will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I came home late one recent evening, and found my husband uncharacteristically agitated. “I just put out a fire!” he said, panting. “I have no idea how it started, I just wanted to microwave some dinner and put it in a foil container to warm, and flames started leaping out!”

Now please don’t find me too biased: I ask you, how are un-domesticated husbands, who almost never prepare or even warm up their food, who almost always wait for their wives to tell them what dinner consists of, supposed to know that foil is the microwave’s nemesis? I looked all over the lethal appliance to see if the manufacturer had included some warning, but no, not a word about the hazards of using foil. Shame on you, I thought indignantly, you should learn from a sign I recently saw on an ad for bulletproof jackets: “Guaranteed or your money back,” or the warning sign on coffee cups that became ubiquitous after an infamous lawsuit: “Caution: Hot beverages are hot!”

On another occasion when my husband received a friend after I had gone to bed, he asked at the top of his voice, from one end of the house to the other: “Levana, do we have any glasses?” To be sure, I did think of a few answers to this, this… how should I put it politely, obtuse question. Examples:

a) “Of course we do, just look in the kitchen;”

b) “We don’t, but you promised we would go and buy ourselves a dozen when our twentieth anniversary rolls around;” or c) “We used to, but we smashed all of them during our arguments and we have none left.”

But of course I thought none of the above answers would reflect well on my husband, who was trying after all to be a good late-night host, and all of them would make me sound like a shrill and sarcastic matron. So instead I jumped out of bed and got into some decent clothing. I walked drowsily past the bewildered guest toward a kitchen cupboard and took out the glasses. In the interest of thoroughness, I should add I had also thought – very briefly – of saying, “of course we have glasses: Open the cabinet in the back of the kitchen, look on the second shelf, etc…” but I dismissed that option almost as soon as it crossed my mind, the reason being, I can hardly remember a time I sent my husband to the kitchen to fetch something with any luck. He would always say, “I looked high and low and didn’t find it,” and if I would find it and wave it a few inches from his face, he would say with amazement, “wow! So where was it?” But he would almost always quickly add, “well, what do you expect, you didn’t tell me to look on that shelf!”

Other times, when he is more inclined to be conscientious, he would just repeat every line after me, as if by rote, with the expressionless tone of someone memorizing some essential lines he would need on an impending trip to a foreign country. “Open the door of the cabinet on top of the refrigerator….. Open the door of the cabinet on top of…” Oh, never mind… never mind, I’m coming.

I can’t remember how the lines got so rigidly drawn between my share of the household tasks and his. I remember a lovely handmade gift a good friend brought us, which we still enjoy: two coffee mugs aptly marked “You the man!” and “You go girl!” For the most part we both got used to our respective roles and even acquit ourselves of our tasks quite honorably, but sometimes it gets a little frustrating, like in this scenario which has a way of recurring occasionally: One Shabbos day when we walked the few short blocks from synagogue towards home, a shy elderly man I had invited to join us for lunch walked with my husband, while I chatted away with some friends a few paces behind them. When we got to the lobby of our building, I asked my husband where the old man was, and he answered “Oh! So that’s it! No wonder I kept telling him ‘Good Shabbos’ and he just stood there! Then he just went away! I didn’t know you had invited him!”

When I reached forty, I thought I should celebrate this major milestone by conquering my fear of driving. Perennial city mouse that I am, I proved a mediocre student, and passed by a hair on my third try. Then I had the uninspired idea of asking my husband, a wonderful driver, to help me boost my nonexistent skills. And here I should warn you: Even if the dynamics of your marriage are made in heaven, please go to any length not to make a co-pilot out of your husband. Those rare times I diffidently clambered behind the wheel were the first times he started putting on a safety belt and urged me to put on mine, sitting the way we sit in a rollercoaster, muttering between his teeth “oy-oy-oy!” My daughter, who was in the car on one of those nerve-racking trips when my husband was screaming “You are breaking the transmission!” told me she prayed it wouldn’t be cause for divorce. My driving career was blighted after a dozen spins at the most. You might say mass transportation got me back in marital business.

So all this begs the question: What would my husband say about my Venus habits? Until he does, let me give you some clues and leave it at that: When my PC breaks down or even stalls, I just sit and cry, and I don’t think there is a technical support operator from Los Angeles or China or Bengladesh who doesn’t try to duck when he gets my desperate call. I do speak several languages but can never make out any technical instructions. I cook, sew, bead, knit, write, conduct classes, run the house, give lectures and go places, but can never orient myself: a street or a building approached from a new angle becomes totally unfamiliar. I have never ever mailed a bill to any service, balanced a checkbook or packed for a trip. I leave it all to my husband, a model of timeliness, industriousness, thoughtfulness and fitness. And he confidently – I almost said conveniently – leaves everything else to me: our meals, our social agenda, our trips’ itinerary, the management of our house.

Luckily we love a lot of the same things: food (and you know I feed him well), movies, music, books, friends, and places. We share a blind devotion to our children and a fanatical excitement for everything they and their own children do. So yes, it’s a real and working partnership. So what if after all these years, he still does the Jackie Mason thing each time we go to a restaurant, points randomly to an item on the menu and asks: “Levana, do I like this?”? Don’t I still ask him which way to turn each time we visit one of our children in mazelike Washington Heights where they have been living for years? See? We are a team!

I almost forgot something that could have made me feel bitter about having cooked up a storm all these years, resorting to the whole gamut of bribes and incentives to feed everyone healthy meals, while my husband’s best and only culinary performance is make coffee. One morning ages ago, dropping off my children at the school bus stop, I slipped on some chicken fat a nearby greasy spoon joint had disposed of carelessly. I cursed at the slobs, then made all pressing arrangements. I asked my husband to be home early and feed them a decent dinner, while I went with a good friend to the emergency room. It was almost midnight when I got back home, groggy from pain killers, with a bloated foot tightly wrapped in a voluminous bandage, and on crutches. The children waited up for me, I thought lovingly, they want to know how I am doing.

But somehow that question didn’t come up, or at least not right away. They were giggling delightedly, and my oldest son said: “Wow, Mommy, you’ll never believe this: Tati makes the most awesome hot dogs!”

Check back all week for Lévana Kirschenbaum‘s posts on the JBC/MJL Visiting Scribe.