The ProsenPeople

Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yom Hazikaron is Israel's official Memorial Day. It's followed by Yom Ha'atzmaut ("Independence Day"), which commemorates Israel's declaration of Independence in 1948. The below titles focus on Israel through a variety of genres and perspectives. Find the whole list here.


Do My Characters Need to be Jewish?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Debra Spark wrote about meeting Adin Steinsaltz. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Should I show my husband my work? My sister? My mother? Students sometimes ask me this. Go ahead, I say. Just don’t be too eager to listen to your family members’ opinions about your fiction. Parents and siblings bring too much non-literary baggage to their reading, so they’re not the ones to turn to for clearheaded advice. Which is a shame, I’ll be frank, because my mother thinks I’m a genius. My siblings are kind (though not uniformly) about my work. There are a few comments, over the years, that hurt at the time, that pain me less in retrospect. Here’s one that just interested me. My mother read a few stories of mine (in draft) and then asked, “Why do all your characters have to be Jewish?” She wasn’t asking this about the stories where there was a clear answer. If the story concerned Jews on the Lower East Side or a rabbi (as two of the stories in my most recent collection do), then that was fine. What she was asking was about the other stories. The ones with no clear Jewish content, where I nonetheless had made the characters Jewish. The story about the faltering marriage in Baltimore, the one about the cousins living together in a Cambridge apartment when Vaclav Havel’s press secretary comes to visit? They didn’t have to be Jewish, did they?

And the truth is, no, they didn’t. There was nothing in the stories that necessitated me clarifying their cultural heritage or spiritual lives. Still, even if I did edit the explicit mention of Jewishness out, as I did in some cases--because my mother was right it really didn’t need to be there--the characters remained Jewish in my head.

Why, exactly? I could say that I have spent my whole life as a Jew, even if as a completely secular one, and that is the lens through which I see the world, but I have spent my whole life as a woman, and I find myself able to write from a man’s point of view. I have spent my whole life as an identical twin, and I only once wrote about a character who is an identical twin. I think it has more to do with the immediate kinship that I feel with some Jews, the sense that we share a sensibility. Intelligence, warmth, self-deprecating humor, liberal politics, rugelach, books, and black and white cookies occupy the same place in our hearts. Which is to say that we highly value them. OK, well, maybe not the black-and-white cookies, not for all Jews. I can see that might be a debatable point. And everyone doesn’t share my politics, I know. But you get the idea. There’s a certain coziness I feel with other Jews, and it’s a coziness I like to feel with my characters. My characters are in a quite literal way (of course) “my people.” So, no surprise, I suppose, that they should resemble my people in a larger sense, the ones I come from and the ones for whom I feel a special affection.

Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception. She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

Book Cover of the Week: The Mile End Cookbook

Tuesday, April 24, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The Mile End Cookbook: Redefining Jewish Comfort Food from Hash to Hamantaschen (Noah and Rae Bernamoff) will be published by Clarkson Potter in September:

Seeking Fact, Finding the Unknowable

Monday, April 23, 2012 | Permalink

Debra Spark's newest book, The Pretty Girl, is now available. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres—it’s in my most recent book, The Pretty Girl—and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theatre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.

I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my pleasure. I was dispirited. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in history, before I could write the book I intended. I was also anxious to get back to the Marriott in Swiss Cottage where I was staying. My mother and young son were waiting for me, and I knew my son would be impatient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extended separation.

It was late in the day when I finally got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the elevator, I saw a man in a yarmulke holding a clipboard. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be interested by my dip into history. I saw the words Adin Steinsaltz on the man’s clipboard. Now I had another reason I felt like speaking. “He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.

“What’s that?” the man said, interested.

The Thirteen Petalled Rose.”

“Do you understand that book?” the man said abruptly.

I had actually studied the book, which attempts to explain the Jewish mystical system that is kabbalah, fairly seriously at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. “I feel like if there are 100 levels on which to get that book, after reading it twice, I managed to get to level two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kindly or not, influence the structure of the universe. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the universe, and similarly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the potential to create the world as a better or worse place.

“Well, I tell the Rabbi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he introduced himself. He was Steinsaltz’s personal assistant.

I was shocked. The Steinsaltz book—and other books by Steinsaltz—had once been so important to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jewish such an Irish name. Somehow “Adin,” though I knew it was pronounced differently, made me think it would be OK after all.

It turned out that the Rabbi, who is known perhaps best for his translation of the Talmud, was speaking that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assistant said he could get me in. As exciting as this prospect sounded, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my mother. So the assistant offered something else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have coffee with him.

I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited. Later, I told Steve Stern, a Jewish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, “He’s a holy man!”

My meeting was brief. I was embarrassed by my secular self in front of the rabbi. I should have counted on not feeling quite frum enough to be meeting with him. I felt I should have a question for him, but I hadn’t prepared a question. I didn’t know what to say. He was gentle and kind, but I struggled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t so great. I ended up deciding to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had troubled me, since I reread it in preparation for taking my son to his first Purim celebration. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that afterward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 additional men. I asked the rabbi about it. The lack of clarity in the Book of Esther bothered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Persians have permission to attack Jews on a certain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are taking advantage of that permission, when the day comes.

“Well, you’ve never been beaten,” the rabbi said.


“If you were beaten, you’d understand.”

It seemed to me that we were talking about contemporary Israel and Palestine and not ancient Jews and Persians. Later I realized we probably were. I discovered that the rabbi’s politics were far to the right of my own. The other thing the rabbi said, though I can’t remember what we were talking about that led him to these words, is that he liked children, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wisdom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love children myself.

Why am I telling these stories?

Because the meeting with the Rabbi redirected me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, anticipating my morning coffee with the rabbi.

When we talk about fact and fiction in novel writing, I think we are frequently talking about direct borrowings from one’s own autobiography. For me, fact works in a more complex way in my fiction.

I never wrote that book about toy theatres, the one I planned to write when I went to London. Instead, I wrote a novel, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explicit use of the Rabbi’s words about being beaten. I also wrote a story for my subsequent book, The Pretty Girl, called “A Wedding Story.” In it, a rabbi says what Steinsaltz said about children, and the character who hears his words stumbles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.

I couldn’t understand enough about the facts of the Victorian world, so I couldn’t write the novel I intended to. I couldn’t understand the Rabbi’s thinking, and so I found a story I did feel I could write. Stupidity, you could say, stopped me, and stupidity led me forward. Different kinds of stupidity. To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.

Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception. She has been the recipient of several awards including a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. 

Primordial Slush

Friday, April 20, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ramona Ausbel talked about what she is, a mother, and what she isn't, an actress. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Join JBC on May 22nd for a Twitter Book Club conversation with Ramona. Follow #JBCBooks to participate.

Several years ago at a writing conference, I was listening to a panel of agents and editors talk about how to get published. They had advice about query letters and first chapters and whether or not to compare yourself to Nobel Prize winning authors. A man stood up and said, “How long should a novel be? I don’t want to have to write this thing again and again, so I’d appreciate it if you just told me what you wanted right up front.” I could feel everyone in the room sigh for this man, but of course, we all knew what he meant. Why is this so hard, I’ve thought a million times. You read a great book and it feels effortless, like the writer just knew how to tell that story. All of us in that room wanted to know how to tell our stories, too.

My first novel took eight years and seventeen drafts. I wanted to believe that it would be easier the second time around, but I was wrong. It might even be harder, because I know exactly how long the road is. But I am not complaining. No one is forcing me to write — if I hated this (OK, sometimes I do hate it. A lot. But then I love it again later) I could stop. I understand that starting is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first your fourth book, you are always in the dark. Also — a reminder to my future self—it’s not just the beginning that’s difficult. The middle, oh the middle is a test. And finishing? Dear God!

These days I am working on something new. I did the math again, tried to make a deal with myself to write a certain number of pages a day. I dreamed of having a draft by the time my son was born in November. I had a lot of pages, but I did not, by any stretch, have a draft. When people ask me what I’m working on I tell them I don’t know yet since it is still in the primordial slush phase and has not yet sprouted legs and crawled up onto land. I have been saying that for a year. Still no legs. And that has to be OK, because that is what’s true. I still hope that in a matter of years, and I do realize that it will be years and not months around, I will be able to walk back out of this room having showered and put on respectable clothing with a readable manuscript in my hands. But that time is not now. Now, I need to close the door and kneel down in the mud. I have to have faith that something is growing here, even if it is just a single-celled organism, slippery and legless.

Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us with the collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born to follow. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker,One Story, the Green Mountains Review, pax americana, The Orange Coast Review, Slice and collected in The Best American Fantasy and online in The Paris Review.

The Hebrew Translator on Translation

Thursday, April 19, 2012 | Permalink

In our April JBC Bookshelf, we featured a pdf version of an article that first appeared in the summer 2007 issue of Jewish Book World. We thought it would be a good idea to breathe new life into it by adding the text here, as well. This article was written by Jessica Cohen, the translator of two of the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize awardees: Choice Award winner Amir Gutfreund's Our Holocaust and Finalist Yael Hedaya's Accidents. In each summer issue we feature words from the current year's Sami Rohr Prize honorees, and in 2007, in lieu of Jessica Cohen having translated two of the honored titles, we asked her to contribute to the section:

When I think of all the translators I have met since entering this fascinating profession, I cannot call to mind any who knew they wanted to be translators when they grew up. Most of us seem to have past lives—and often parallel ones—in other fields or entirely different professions, and many came to translation in roundabout ways. The common denominator among translators is, of course, an intimate knowledge of at least two languages. (Many translators are purely bilingual, although this is by no means requisite, and conversely, being bilingual does not necessarily make one a good translator.) Translators also possess an ability, and a drive, to constantly travel back and forth between their two languages and the cultural worlds they represent, and to build bridges so that others can follow.

My own case is no exception. I was born in England and moved to Jerusalem with my family at the age of seven. In Israel, I spoke Hebrew in school and almost everywhere else, but continued to speak English at home and often spent time in English-speaking countries. I also got into the habit of reading almost exclusively in English, much to the chagrin of my Hebrew literature teachers, which contributed significantly to my English-language writing facility. I studied English literature at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and after moving to the U.S., I studied Middle Eastern literature and languages at Indiana University. This seeming contradiction—the constant peering into one culture while being immersed in another—is part of my identity, and now a central element of my chosen career. Like many immigrants and cultural transplants, I feel compelled to keep one foot in each culture, and to pursue the frustrating goal of bringing them closer to one another. And since literature is, to my mind, the greatest and most telling reflection of a culture and the repository of its language, what better way to achieve this reconciliation than to introduce the literature of one culture into another?

One of the paradoxes of being a literary translator is that the less attention we draw to ourselves, the better our work probably is. When I translate a book, my job is to find a way to convey the author’s style and voice. Ideally, the readers of my English translation will have the same experience as the readers of the Hebrew original. Geri Gindea, Director of the Sami Rohr Prize, recently commented on how surprised she was upon realizing that I had translated two of the finalists for the Sami Rohr Prize (Amir Gutfreund, winner of the Choice Award for Our Holocaust, and Yael Hedaya, Honorable Mention for Accidents), because the two books employ such very different styles. I took this as a compliment: if Yael Hedaya and Amir Gutfreund sound nothing like each other in English, then I did my job well, because they have very distinctive voices and disparate narrative styles in Hebrew.

Alongside these two young and exciting authors, I have also had the honor of translating a literary giant like David Grossman (Her Body Knows). Since Mr. Grossman has had many previous works translated into English and his reputation is well established, the challenge of retaining his unique voice was all the more daunting. I have also translated non-fiction works, such as the forthcoming book by Tom Segev (1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East), which presented a challenge of a different sort: it is important to convey the fluid narrative style that is the mark of a good non-fiction writer, yet the primary objective in translating nonfiction must be to retain the clarity of the information and the author’s arguments.

Whatever I happen to be translating on a given day—a love story, a family saga, childhood recollections, or historical analysis—I strive to carry across into my translation not only the literal meaning of the words, but their cultural weight, their allusions, the imagery and emotions they evoke. This is rarely an easy task, and not always attainable, and every so often I have to accept that some things must be lost in translation. I am also aware that, much as no two writers will ever tell a story the same way, there are often infinitely varied ways of translating a line or even a single word. Finding the perfect turn of phrase brings a sense of satisfaction that all translators look forward to, and the search itself provides an opportunity to delve deeper into language and meaning, which is a part of my work that I relish. The first-rate writers I have been fortunate to work with, and the creative negotiation between different languages, cultures, and ways of looking at the world, make for an engaging and everchanging occupation.

Jessica Cohen has translated the following titles on the JBC website:

1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Transformed the Middle East, Tom Segev
Accidents, Yael Hedaya
Eden, Yael Hedaya
Our Holocaust, Amir Gutfreund
The World a Moment Later, Amir Gutfreund
To the End of the Land, David Grossman

Find out more about Jessica by visiting her website: The Hebrew Translator.

JBC Bookshelf: Translations and Boundaries

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

While not all of this month's offerings are translations, there are quite a few in this round's mix, which makes JBCers particularly happy. We're happy both because fine international titles are making their way into the American literary market, and also because they help reflect the broader Jewish experience and keep lines of communication open between Jews worldwide.

Speaking of translations, if you're not familiar with Three Percent's Best Translated Book Awards, you should be. This year's shortlist includes Moacyr Scliar's Kafka's Leopards (translator: Thomas O. Beebee) and the 2010 winning title was Gail Hareven's The Confessions of Noa Weber (translator: Dalya Bilu). Two other great resources for translated titles are Dalkey Archive Press's Hebrew Literature series, which we feature on our website here, and Melville House's translations, which includes titles by Imre Kertész, Sholem Aleichem, and Joshua Sobol. Bonus: Check out Melville House's Sholem Aleichem bobbleheads. Finally, check out translator Jessica Cohen's article on translation for the Summer 2007 issue of Jewish Book World here.

Along with the translations, several of the below selections explore the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction (see: God's Horse and The Atheist's School, The Messenger, and The Wine of Solitude). When do these forms need to work together to tell the whole story and when does one form suffice?  It may also be of interest to look into newly reviewed HHhH (Laurent Binet; Sam Taylor, trans.), which is both a translation and also explores the aforementioned boundaries. And, of course, who could resist the forthcoming UPNE title focused on coffee (another thing that makes JBCers happy)? Needless to say, we've been spoiled by riches this month, and, as always, look forward to the next round of literary treats.

God's Horse and The Atheists' School, Wilhelm Dichter; Madeline G. Levine, trans. (March 2012, Northwestern University Press)
Dichter's autobiographical novels bring to life the tensions between ideologues and pragmatists, Polish patriots and their Soviet masters.

The Patagonian Hare: A Memoir, Claude Lanzmann; Frank Wynne, trans. (March 2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux) 
Check out The New Yorker's recent profile of Lanzmann here
Jews Welcome Coffee: Tradition and Innovation in Early Modern Germany, Robert Liberles (April 2012, Brandeis University Press)
Not surprisingly, Jews readily accepted coffee when it made its way to Europe in the 1650s.

The Messenger, Yannick Haenel; Mark Baker, trans. (May 2012, Counterpoint Press)
The novelized biography of Jan Karski, a young Polish diplomat charged with bringing the truth of Hitler's extermination plan to the Allies.

The Innocents, Francesca Segal (June 2012, Voice)
Segal's debut novel explores the world of a tight-knit Jewish suburb of London.

The Wine of Solitude, Irène Némirovsky; Sandra Smith, trans. (September 2012, Vintage)
Since we have a bit of a wait for this one, check out JBC's Irène Némirovsky review page here.

Orange Prize Shortlist

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yesterday was a good day for Cynthia Ozick: she both turned 84 and made the Orange Prize shortlist.  Check out her speech from the 2010 National Jewish Book Awards here and read reviews of a selection of her titles below:


Holocaust Remembrance Day

Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) begins this evening and we've compiled a short reading list, including titles for adults and children. For the complete list, please click here. Or, consider searching the full list of Holocaust titles on JBC's website here.



Wednesday, April 18, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Ramona Ausubel wrote about why she's a writer and not an actress. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Join us in May for Twitter Book Club with Ramona.

I have been a writer for my whole adult life. I have only been a mother for five months. Like many women, I worried that having a baby would unmake my professional life. I worried that I would never have time to write, that my upcoming book tour would be a disaster and the novel that had taken me eight years to write — arguably my first baby — would not get the birth I wanted for it.

My son was born in November, and for several weeks, I disappeared into the slow, rolling water of motherhood. My sense of time disappeared. It made little difference if it was night or day — I nursed, I slept, I ate, I gazed down at this brand new creature, alive for the first time in history. I forgot all about my book, about the new novel I had been working on while I was pregnant, about publicity and schedules. There was a new story in my life: the story of my son, the story of me as his mother. In the first nights, the baby slept beautifully but my husband and I lay awake because it was impossible to look away from him. His tiny, perfect hands rested on his tiny, perfect chest. This is my baby, I kept thinking. I will love him for the duration. I had been making things my whole life, but never had I created something like this.

When my son was two weeks old, I got an email from my publicist with a series of interview questions from another writer. “Could you have this to me by Tuesday?” she asked. Tuesday? I thought. What is Tuesday? The calendar and I had parted ways. It seemed so strange that everyone was having a regular work-week, that they were tending to the usual business while I was living a miracle. Still, I opened my computer and discovered when Tuesday was. I read the questions and thought about them. It took me a few days to get all the answers down, but it felt good to remember that other baby of mine. Especially since I could do so with my son on my lap, swaddled and sleeping. He was happy to let me do my job, to make room in the day for other parts of me.

Three months later, the book was published and reviews began to come in. Though they were mostly positive, it was overwhelming to see the work I’d done evaluated all over the place. Before the first reading I started to wonder what I was doing.

How was this a good idea again? The private part of writing suits me; I wasn’t sure how I felt about the public performance part. But I looked down at my sweet boy in my lap. He was sucking on his hands — a new trick. “I’m just going to read to you, OK? You are the only audience that matters.” He smiled up at me. And for the next four weeks, in cities across the country, he was there in the back of the bookstore curled up on my husband’s chest. He cooed and gargled occasionally and slept most of the time. He did have to be taken out of the room once, but not because he was upset: he had the giggles.

After I had read and signed books, milled and chatted, the three of us would go out and find a glass of wine someplace. It was wonderful. We were a family, my husband, our son, me – both the mom and the writer. I had worried about how I would pull everything off with a baby, but I hadn’t considered how I would have managed it without him.

Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of the novel No One is Here Except All of Us with the collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born to follow. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker,One Story, the Green Mountains Review, pax americana, The Orange Coast Review, Slice and collected in The Best American Fantasy and online in The Paris Review.