The ProsenPeople

Book Cover of the Week: The Trial of the Talmud

Wednesday, January 09, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Trial of the Talmud: Paris, 1240  (John Friedman, Jean Connell Hoff, Robert Chazan) presents primary texts (offered together in English for the first time) related to the "Trial of the Talmud" that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages. During the trial, rabbis were called upon to defend the Talmud against the claim that it was a harmful text and thus "intolerable in a Christian society."


Higher Education: A Revelation and a Jewish Perspective

Tuesday, January 08, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Cliff Graubart wrote about his father and Pat Conroy. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I know Jewish doctors and lawyers who are sending their children to state universities and tell me they are ‘great’ schools. I remember the same gentlemen telling me that the public high school their children went to was also ‘great.’ I had a tough time buying this argument and was able to confirm my beliefs when my own daughter decided, after her schooling at a Jewish day school since kindergarten, she wanted a public school experience. My wife and I acquiesced and our daughter entered with enthusiasm and, being the very bright girl she is, soon insisted that she needed a nose piercing. “I need an edge,” she insisted, and we understood. She was in a tough environment and read the signs accurately. Then I thought of the three Jewish lawyers who had or in the past had their kids at the school and said it was ‘great.’ Finally I figured it out. It wasn't great. It was free.

My daughter wanted this experience because the high school was a magnet school and offered a good dance program. It wasn't, and she soon outgrew the program spending her hours after school seeking more professional training at the ballet studio she had recently joined.

My wife and I make a modest living, but are on the same page when it comes to education. She was raised in the public school system in several states growing up. I was raised in public school in Manhattan, where many of my teachers were Jews and the product of the '30s socialist period, committed to education. Although I had a solid education, the teachers weren't trained as they are today to pick up on learning disabilities. If they had, I might have started writing sooner, and perhaps would have attended a better college. We both wanted more for our own children.

The local state school here in Georgia has an excellent reputation, especially the Honors Program. Although my son was accepted there, he chose to go to NYU. You get more bang for your buck by going to the state school I was told. It could be argued that if you want to be a teacher, and work for those low salaries, it simply doesn't make sense to spend the huge amount of money it takes to go to a school such as NYU.

I disagree. My son’s first full year was spent in Paris in an apartment house for students where they had to cook for themselves. He spoke not a word of French when he landed, and upon his return to New York the next year, he minored in French. The experience changed his life.

So why do I write of this? Because my first inclination was to believe I wanted the best in education for my kids because of my Judaism. But my wife was raised a Baptist. And what of those Jewish lawyers and doctors I spoke of earlier? Judaism does I think, instill in us the zeal for education, but it comes in all kinds and degrees.

Cliff Graubart is the author of The Curious Vision of Sammy Levitt and Other Stories (Mercer University Press, 2012). Visit him online at

From Stanislawow to Beach Music

Monday, January 07, 2013 | Permalink
Cliff Graubart is the author of The Curious Vision of Sammy Levitt and Other Stories (Mercer University Press, 2012). He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning

My parents left the United States in 1973 to retire in Bat Yam, Israel, the country in which they met and married in 1934, and where my brother Norman was born. My father left Poland in 1925 and went to work for his brothers in Paris and then left to compete in the first Maccabiah games in the breast stroke only to learn that there was no swimming pool. (I learned later that there was indeed a swimming event, so I can only assume that my dad may have not made the cut and may have been too embarrassed.) My mother left her home Bulgaria as a young woman on a group visa and settled in Jerusalem, where she met my father in the fur shop where they both were employed.

One day while browsing in a used bookshop in Tel Aviv after his retirement to Israel, he came upon a book titled During the Russian Administration with the Jews of Stanislawow During the Holocaust by Abraham Liebesman. My father, Sigmund Graubart, no trained scholar, was always interested in history. And he had a keen interest in Stanislawow, Poland (today Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine), the city of his birth, because his older sister and her family were killed there. After determining there was only this edition, which was in Hebrew, my father began translating the book into English.

At the same time, Pat Conroy was working on his novel Beach Music and a portion of the book dealt with the Holocaust. He wanted to place his character “Max Rusoff” in a small city and as is usual in Conroy’s fiction, he wanted to write in great detail. Pat loved my parents. He wishes we could have switched our families at birth. I told him that would have impinged on our friendship, as I would have been dead. I couldn’t have survived “The Great Santini.”

Pat began work on Beach Music in 1986 and would take 9 years to publish the novel. My dad finished his translation in 1990 and I published it, distributing it free to anyone who showed interest. Pat read it and was so moved, he used it as the primary reference to describe life during the Holocaust in the novel. He was surprised at how good the translation was. He knew my father only had a high school education. During the Russian Administration had the detail Pat was seeking and he decided to use it to help him draw the picture of “Kronittska.”

In a note to the reader in Beach Music, Conroy gives thanks to Sigmund Graubart, and because of that acknowledgement and because the book was translated into scores of languages, I have received requests for the 49-page booklet from all over the world. There is no charge, and there are still some available.

Visit Cliff online at

Arbitrary Judaism

Friday, January 04, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Justine Hope Blau wrote about growing up in an intellectual but chronically homeless family. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

We grew up with my mother's special brand of religion: Eccentric Judaism. My two older brothers and I were allowed to eat shrimp and lobster, but we wouldn’t dream of tasting pork. On Saturdays we weren’t allowed to write or spend money, yet that was negotiable, depending on our circumstances. We spent six years without a home, moving from hotel to hotel in Manhattan, always short of money. So there were times when, given that we often didn’t have a kitchen, we’d spend money on Shabbas to get food. Even Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, was malleable. We drank water and fasted until about 2 pm because that’s as long as my mother could take it before succumbing to her appetite. “Life before Torah,” my mother would say, and she invoked it whenever it suited her agenda.

In my recently published memoir, Scattered, I write of losing faith in Judaism in 4th grade, when my class at PS 111 on West 52nd put on a play about King Arthur. I auditioned for the role of Merlin the magician, after my brothers coached me for the part, teaching me to speak in a low voice for maximum gravitas. I landed it, beating out two boys.

My mother nixed it for me though, when she saw me kneeling as I rehearsed in front of the mirror in our hotel room. At the end of the play, everyone had to kneel to King Arthur.

“Jews don’t kneel to anyone but God,” my mother said. I could bow, but she forbade me to kneel. Back at school, Miss Yalowitz put the issue to a vote before the class. Could Justine bow instead of kneel? I won by one vote. Then Geoffrey Wolf, another Jewish kid, piped up, saying if I couldn’t kneel, neither could he. At that point, Miss Yalowitz took my part away. The play went on with another kid reading Merlin’s lines from a script on stage since he didn’t have time to learn them by heart.

The afternoon when I lost the role, as we waited for our mothers to pick us up, my best enemy, Laura Nusser, praised my piety. “You’re a good Jew, Justine,” but the words were hollow to me. I had few clothes, few toys, and we had been living a marginal life in seedy hotels for a long time. I was willing to sacrifice when necessary but this wasn’t worth it. I realized that my mother had a choice; it wasn’t Jewish law, it was her interpretation of it. If she bent the rules when she pleased, then she could have allowed my kneeling. I couldn’t have articulated it then, but I knew that she was using religion in a selfish way that negated the deep joy and fulfillment that anchors Jewish people today to our forebears, and us to each other, transcending doctrine.

Maybe that’s why I react so strongly to the story of Isaac and Abraham—how God tested Abraham to see if he would sacrifice his only son for God. There’s been lots of intellectual debate about this story, but it’s a deal breaker for me. Clearly it’s a story written by a human being; in any case, I reject this story because it portrays God as so sadistic. But I do not totally reject Judaism. One of the beautiful things I got from my mother, which I gleaned from her despite her flaws, was that things are negotiable. Just as she could have been flexible about the kneeling scene, so I can appreciate the values and the soulfulness of Judaism even if I don’t agree with all of it.

I identify as Jewish (as well as Humanist and as a pagan). I loved Hebrew School, especially for the history and the elegiac songs. I sent my children to a Reconstructionist Hebrew School and am glad they had their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and that those warm, soulful hymns — like Ein Keloheinu, Adon Olam and and Eliyahu Hanavi—resonate through them and connect them to Jewish tradition and culture.

Thousands of years ago, Jewish schools were the first in the world that were for all the boys in the community, not just for the sons of the rich. And the Reconstructionist synagogue where my children went to Hebrew School, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, was the first in the world, in 1920, to let a girl be Bat Mitzvahed. This same Reconstructionist belief dispensed with the notion that the Jews are the chosen, because all people are special. These are the kind of values that keep me connected to my Jewish roots. It helps me reach the conclusion that my mother is not the final arbiter of Jewish law, and yet she was right that many things are open to interpretation and negotiation. Life before Torah.

Justine Hope Blau's memoir,Scattered: A Mostly True Memoir, is now available.

New Reviews

Friday, January 04, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:


JBC Bookshelf: Most Anticipated Spring 2013 Titles

Friday, January 04, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

January is one of my favorite months at the Jewish Book Council. Not only do we announce the National Jewish Book Award winners and finalists (soon...), but we also get to browse dozens of catalogs and hundreds of review copies to prepare for our year in Jewish books. Our lists are already full of promising soon-to-be-published titles, so be sure to keep tabs on us for the latest in all things Jewish literary. How do you keep tabs on us, you ask? Good question. A few ideas:

  • Participate in our monthly Twitter Book Club with
  • Check out new Visiting Scribe posts each week, where authors share the backstory behind their books, items that just didn't make the cut, reading lists, thoughts on current events, excerpts, previews, Q&As, and more
  • Sign up for our weekly email and receive recommended reading and updates on the newest JBC reviews
  • Browse our Pinterest boards
  • Check our calendar for Jewish literary events in your area
  • Need a theme for you book club this year? Look no further.
  • For additional resources, visit here.

Now, to start the year off right...a few titles I'm most looking forward to this spring (a small sampling of what's to come!):

Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora, Emily Raboteau (January 2013, Atlantic Monthly Press)

The Tin Horse: A Novel, Janice Steinberg (January 2013, Random House)

Hand-Drying in America: And Other Stories, Ben Katchor (February 2013, Pantheon)

The Wanting: A Novel, Michael Lavigne (February 2013, Schocken Books)

In the Land of the Living, Austin Ratner (March 2013, Reagan Arthur Books)

The Retrospective, A. B. Yehoshua (March 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built, Mark Russ Federman (March 2013, Schocken Books)

A Nearly Perfect Copy: A Novel, Allison Amend (April 2013, Nan A. Talese)

Mothers: A Novel, Jennifer Gilmore (April 2013, Scribner)

Harvard Square: A Novel, André Aciman (April 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

The Golem and the Jinni: A Novel, Helene Wecker (April 2013, Harper)

Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, Jessica Soffer (April 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, Elinor Litman (April 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Helga's Diary: A Young Girl's Account of Life in a Concentration Camp, Helga Weiss; Neil Bermel, trans. (May 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

A Dual Inheritance: A Novel, Joanna Hershon (May 2013, Ballantine Books)

The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris
, Jonathan Kirsch (May 2013, Liveright)

Who Will Die Last: Stories of Life in Israel, David Ehrlich (May 2013, Syracuse University Press)

A Summer 2013 Preview:

Claudia Silver to the Rescue, Kathy Ebel (June 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, Nathan Schneider (June 2013, University of California Press)

Paris France, Gertrude Stein (June 2013, Liveright)

A Fall 2013 Preview:

A Guide for the Perplexed, Dara Horn (September 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

A Broken Hallelujah: The Life of Leonard Cohen, Liel Leibovitz (Fall 2013, W. W. Norton & Company)

The Oath, Martin Fletcher (Fall 2013, Thomas Dunne Books/St.Martin's Press)

The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, Jeremy Dauber (October 2013, Schocken Books/Nextbook Press)

Book Cover of the Week: Oral Pleasure

Thursday, January 03, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In Oral Pleasure: Kosinski as Storyteller, published last month by Grove/Atlantic, Jerzy Kosinski's late widow, Kikki, collects interviews, lectures, and transcriptions of media appearances of the legendary literary figure:

Related: "Out of Atrocity, Art" by Ruth Franklin (A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction)

Shades of Privilege and Deprivation

Wednesday, January 02, 2013 | Permalink

Justine Hope Blau, a writer of screenplays and books, has an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. Her memoir Scattered: A Mostly True Memoir is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

People would often underestimate me if they knew that my parents hadn't taken good care of me, so I used to be covert about the six years my family was chronically homeless and the years I spent in placement with the Jewish Child Care Association. People assumed I couldn't drive, or had never been to Fire Island or didn't know French—that kind of thing. And I’d get touchy because people who grew up underprivileged tend to be thin-skinned.

Now I've written a childhood memoir, Scattered, so my story is out. And while most people give me a lot of credit for transcending such challenges, friend-of-my-youth Jacqueline Heagle is quick to give me perspective.

“You are a spoiled brat,” she reminds me.

Jacki thinks my experiences with my family roaming around public spaces like libraries, the Automat and Central Park, wandering around the United Nations and midtown Manhattan, having older brothers who went to college and told me stories, reflects a world of privilege. She quips that I’m showing off.

Jacki and I met at the Pleasantville Cottage School when we were 11. I was an emergency case, placed in the same 5th grade class with her on June 17th, 1967, two weeks before the end of school. A few months later she was sent to a group residence in Westchester, but we were reunited in a group residence for teenage girls in Rego Park, Queens, when we were 14. We lived together there for three years.

Jacki found it painful to read Scattered because it made her feel jealous. She grew up rarely leaving her Brooklyn neighborhood and apartment overlooking the noisy elevated subway line; her family was on welfare and the big treat was to get pizza when the check arrived. She has written eloquently about how she eagerly awaited being sent to “The School” and finally got to go when she was eight. Jacki felt that she was reborn when she arrived at Pleasantville. She remembers the first day she got there, how she climbed her first tree and ate her first fresh apple. She hardly ever went home or saw her parents after that.

The Jewish Child Care Association provided that safety net for Jacki, and for me. After Jacki left the residence, she was on her own, but still the JCCA helped her pay for college. And when she decided to leave college, they helped her pay for beauty school. She earned her living for decades as a hair stylist and raised her two sons with far more advantages than she had.

The Jewish Child Care Association didn't get everything right. Corporal punishment was accepted, and there are stories I hear, and believe, of a few cottage parents sexually preying on children. But most of us feel that Pleasantville provided a feeling of safety and security for us.

So how do I feel about being exposed by the book I felt driven to write? Is the world made by colliding classes, power structures and degrees of respectability, or do I see it that way because of how I got here? It’s so confusing, my past, and where it has brought me. I’ve been trying to sort out the confusion for a long time. When a child is torn from her world, and forcibly placed in another, she is likely to learn fast to observe who’s got power, who doesn't and how to manage in the new system. So I've spent a lot of time either being resentful of my disadvantages, or feeling guilty because of my privilege, and somehow both.

I think the extreme worlds of my childhood, between the U.N., the libraries and cheap hotels, a mother with grandiose notions but neglectful habits, gave me a unique ability to read society and the social world around me.

Visit Justine Hope Blau's website here.

Your Graphic Novel and Mine

Friday, December 28, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans wrote about the problem with academic writing and asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I’m a passionate lover of the graphic novel.

I grew up in Mexico City. As an adolescent, my weekly literary diet included comics of all types. There were the usual suspects from the United States: superheroes of various calibers, such as Superman and Batman, as well as funny characters like Archie and Sabrina. But the comics I cherished the most were locally made or imported from other parts of Latin America: Kalimán, La familia Burrón, Condorito, Mafalda… Like other readers, I saw my own social, political, and historical dilemmas reflected in them.

Recently I traveled from one book fair to another promoting El Iluminado, a graphic novel I wrote (with Steve Sheinkin), set among the crypto-Jews of the Southwest. Scores of writer friends I met were surprised I had accepted to experiment in this field. “Isn't it for younger people?” one of them asked. “Theirs is the generation of the moving pictures…” I laughed, telling him about my uncured devotion to comic strips as well as mammoth narratives. “The readers of Don Quixote are always young, aren't they? And Cervantes’s imagination was quite cinematic. Were he alive, I’m sure he would be a fan of graphic novels.”

“Did you like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay?” another inquired. Not really, I said, it is both long and longwinded. The message was clear to me, though: Why hadn’t I written a straight book about my comic-book education?

The answer is straightforward: I’m interested in the graphic novel for its fresh yet ancient combination of image and word. They are at their best when addressing a historical issue head on, like the ones created by Will Eisner, Art Spigelman, and Joe Secco. The genre is still in its infancy. In the last few years it has thrived precisely because of the experimental drive of its practitioners.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).

Academic Freedom Is Wasted on Academics

Wednesday, December 26, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ilan Stavans asked: Is there a Jewish literary renaissance? He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Sometimes when I’m congratulated for writing well, the praise comes with a sense of theft, as if someone like me who has spent decades in academia—I started teaching when I was just out of college—should be expected to say things in muddy, incomprehensible ways.

I understand the qualm. Academics are known for their pedantic style. This is particularly the case in the humanities, where, given the universal topics, one would expect the opposite. Scholars for the most part write obscurely for a small audience—minuscule, really: less than half a dozen peers. To show off, they become convinced that arguments need to be labyrinthine and the language unintelligible.

This awful mode is learned in graduate school. Unfortunately, judging by the sample of the latest crop of scholars, there doesn't appear to be an end to this education to obfuscate.

Truth is, it isn’t a matter of style. The problem, in my opinion, is the fear to be honest, to say what one thinks elegantly and persuasively when the occasion prompts. In other words, this handicap is related to the fear of speaking one’s mind. Graduate school, again in the humanities, is a hindrance: it teaches future teachers to hide behind cumbersome theoretical frameworks. The pleasure to read, to write, to think is sabotaged by the obligation to align oneself behind a doctrine.

Yes, I’m convinced academics are timorous people, I’m not sure if more or less than everyone else, but in our case it shows because of the privileged position in which we find ourselves. Given the extraordinary opportunity to speak out, they burry their head underground. Academic freedom is wasted on academics.

Feeling suffocated, I have sought role models outside academia as well as in the liminal zone where the classroom and the outside world meet: Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Henry Luis Gates, Jr., Morris Dickstein… That is, I have tried to follow figures capable of simultaneously speaking to two audiences, the one within and the one outside campus.

Each of them has responded to the needs of his time. What they’ve shown—to me, at least—is that the dividing line between insiders and outsiders is nothing if not artificial. The two audiences exist only in our mind. When we exile them from there, these become one.

To write well is to express oneself with clarity, precision, and conviction. And to be humble: one must irrevocably assume the reader—all readers—to be our equals. To think otherwise is an exercise in solipsism.

Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His most recent books are the collection of essays Singer’s Typewriter and Mine: Reflections on Jewish Culture (University of Nebraska Press, 2002) and the graphic novel El Iluminado (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin).