The ProsenPeople

We Missed These Jewish Jocks. Do You Know Them?

Thursday, November 15, 2012 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Marc Tracy wrote about Jews in sports and Hollywood. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In the movie Airplane, a passenger asks for some "light" reading and is offered "this leaflet, 'Famous Jewish Sports Legends.'" But actually, we have 50 essays and could have easily assigned that many more. (Well, maybe not easily, but they're out there.) How well do you know Jewish Jocks? Below is a list of ten of them, none of whom made it into our volume, along with brief descriptions of who they were and are. Can you match the names and the descriptions? Let this quiz serve as proof that there is more than a leaflet to this subject.

1. Amy Alcott
2. Ryan Braun
3. Rod Carew
4. Sid Gilman
5. Fred Lebow
6. Red Klotz
7. Lip Pike
8. Steve Sabol
9. Abe Saperstein
10. Dara Torres

a. As head coach of the San Diego Chargers, developed a pass-heavy offense that serves as the template for contemporary football's downfield attack.
b. Winner of five golf majors.
c. The impresario behind the Harlem Globetrotters, from its beginnings as a team that genuinely played to compete to the lovable bunch of pranksters you know today.
d. The only non-Jew on this list.
e. A 12-time Olympic gold-medalist swimmer.
f. Longtime head of NFL Films, whose gridiron documentaries shaped the mythological lens through which many see professional football.
g. The first professional baseball player—that is, the first person who was ever compensated for services rendered on the diamond.
h. To this day, the coach of the Washington Generals, the basketball team that ritualistically gets defeated by the Harlem Globetrotters.
i. Founder of the New York City Marathon.
j. Last season's National League Most Valuable Player.

Answers can be found here. No Googling!

Marc Tracy is the co-editor of the new book Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He is a staff writer at The New Republic. Previously, he was a staff writer at Tablet, where his blog, The Scroll, won the 2011 National Magazine Award.

One-Year Anniversary!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week, the Jewish Book Council Website turns ONE.  We've had some fantastic contributions and feedback throughout the year and look forward to bringing you more reviews, features, reading lists, and resources in the coming year.  Below, find some of our top read reviews, blog posts, and book club themes from the past twelve months.

Now, time for the best part: In celebration of our first anniversary and Jewish Book Month, we're giving away free book bundles! To enter to win, post a comment here with your favorite Jewish book (or you can comment on Facebook (don't forget to tag us!) or share via Twitter using #JLit). The winner will be chosen at random on November 26th, so be sure to share you favorite book by November 25th. 



ProsenPeople Posts

Promowork: A Necessary Evil (Joshua Cohen and Justin Taylor)

Tisha B’Av and the Olympic Games (Dvora Meyers)

Sarah's Key, Mary's Secrets, and Truth That's Stranger Than Fiction (Lois Leveen)

Genetic Memory: Feeling Jewish (Doreen Carvajal)

Wandering Mother, Wondering Daughter: Part 1 (Anne Cherian)

The Magic of Summer Camp (Jonathan Krasner)

Book Club Themes

Historical Fiction

Contemporary Israeli Literature

Keeping it in the Family

Emerging Voices

Short Stories

The Charitable Side of Jekyll & Hyde

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 | Permalink

Today, JBC reviewer M. Elias Keller writes about how a core Jewish concept helped him write his novel, Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel.

Although I’m a Jewish writer, my novel, Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel, an adaptation of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, is not a Jewish novel—but it was a deeply-rooted concept of Judaism that illuminated and clarified my story’s themes and direction.

In 2009, I re-read one of my favorite novels, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and was especially intrigued by a passage that explains Jekyll’s potion as having “no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prison-house of my disposition; and that which stood within ran forth.” Pondering this, I pursued the idea of writing about a morally-conflicted man taking the potion and creating a manifestation of his purely good side. And since financial scandals such as the mortgage crisis and Bernie Madoff were hot news topics, I settled on a banker for my protagonist: pitiless businessman by day, and, by aid of the drug, a saintly almsgiver at night.

Wanting to present thematic complexity that would give Mr. Bodkin and Father Whitechapel the best chance of standing as a genuine companion volume to Stevenson’s classic, the philosophical aspects of charity became a focal point. This also fit nicely with the historical fiction aspect of the novel, revolving around the Charity Organisation Society (C.O.S.), a 19th-century British institution that sought to systematize charity and aid those deemed most deserving, rather than most needy. Reviled in its time for ideas that are now rather commonplace (think: grant applications), the C.O.S. was strongly against street-charity, and thus, in my fictional world, the open-handed Father Whitechapel.

Underlying this examination of charity was an even more perplexing question: what is charity? What is the responsibility of the wealthy to the poorer classes? Although I was writing a story and not an essay, these questions were important to understanding my character’s decisions and personalities. For example, a scene in the book depicts an exchange between the Secretary of the C.O.S. (the real-life Charles Stewart Loch), and his friend Mr. Meade, a sweatshop-owning clothing manufacturer:

“Not come soliciting, have you?” Mr. Meade asked, with one of his characteristic guffaws.
“No, sir,” Mr. Loch replied, forcing a thin smile. “I have well given up that chase.”
“Well, it’s nothing against you, Charles,” said the other, as the two men settled into their seats. “But then I never went in for charity and the like. What is it, anyway, except more spent at the public-houses and rat-pits?” Mr. Meade harrumphed, rapping the arm of his chair. “The best form of charity, I say, is a sound economy. Everything else,” he added, flushing crimson, “is wasted money or self-serving balderdash!”
This little spirit of temper was somewhat of an affront to Mr. Loch, but being a man inured to criticism, he merely nodded stoically. “Perhaps so, Wallace, but a sound economy is built on liveable wages.”
Meade snorted, swirled his glass, and continued pontificating along a familiar line. “There will always be hunger, Charles. That is a fact of life. Natural selection and so forth. Some men thrive, and some go to the wall. I pay the wages that the market will bear.”
“Starvation wages, you mean,” Mr. Loch rejoined mildly.
“Starvation, sir, is a discipline,” Meade came back with; “and London’s poor would do well to have more of it.”

Somewhere along the way, I recalled an idea from Judaic studies: the definition of tzedakah as “justice”—not “charity.” (This definition does translate to the wider Christian world, as we see in St. Augustine’s counsel: “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”) And aligning charity with justice helped me to align the story with my own internal conflicts. It’s easy to drop some change into a cardboard box with the Star of David on it, or make a donation to the Jewish Federation, and accept that as tzedakah—“charity.” But it’s difficult, uncomfortable and time-consuming to truly confront the world’s inequalities and injustices.

In my novel, Mr. Bodkin discovers the fatal consequences of using a magic potion to “solve” his internal conflicts. In the real world, the stakes are smaller—yet the conflict is there, especially for those who must thoughtfully steward the money and time of donors. Consider the complexities of institutional charity, such as foundations contributing to cancer research/prevention organizations—while earning dividend income from stockholdings in companies like Altria (the parent company of Marlboro cigarettes).

Charity is something we can compartmentalize: we have our living expenses and luxuries, and our donations; we have our work and leisure times, and our volunteer sessions. But the question of justice permeates every moment of our lives and forces us to accept that true tzedakah cannot be donated or purchased. True tzedakah, true justice, must be demanded by every one of us, every day, with every dollar we spend and give.

M. Elias Keller grew up in Bucks County, PA and earned degrees in Anthropology and Urban Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a freelance and journalistic writer in Philadelphia and San Diego, as well as publishing short fiction in various literary magazines. Keller is the author of Strange Case of Mr. Bodkin & Father Whitechapel (GZI Productions, 2012), a companion novel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. He lives in Philadelphia.

Sports Is Like Hollywood: They're Both Jewish!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012 | Permalink

Marc Tracy is the co-editor of the new book Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth wrote a passage that, had he not written it, we would have needed to invent:

The radio was playing ‘Easter Parade’ and I thought, But this is Jewish genius on a par with the Ten Commandments. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and then He gave to Irving Berlin ‘Easter Parade’ and ‘White Christmas.’ The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ—the divinity that’s the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity—and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow.

It is old hat to point out that the story of America is of the melting pot, and that the tension is between the assimilators and those who cling to their old identities. But as Roth describes above, the Jewish story in America has represented a distinctive twist on that. Yes, there has been plenty of overcompensating gestures toward Americanness, as all of those Jewish babies named Norman, Lionel, and indeed Irving testify. But just as frequently, and more prominently, Jews have stepped in and changed the culture—have moved the mountain to themselves rather than moving to the mountain—and did so in such exciting and obviously appealing ways that everyone else followed their lead.

In music, Berlin de-Christed Christmas; George Gershwin jazzed up the joint; and the musical was practically invented by Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein, and brought to glorious fruition in the work of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Many non-Jews have made astounding contributions to American popular music, too, of course, but they worked in a rubric devised by these Jews.

Hollywood, famously, was "An Empire of Their Own," to quote the title of Neil Gabler's book, a dream-factory created by German Jewish moguls and nurtered into an art form by a group of emigre auteurs who fused Weimar-era seriousness with Yiddish humor. It is amazing to think that 1920s filmgoers who rushed to see The Jazz Singer, the first sound picture ever, saw Al Jolson (born Asa Yoelson) singing "Kol Nidre" at the climax.

In literature, Saul Bellow created the template for a brash new voice, with Norman Mailer and Philip Roth close behind. Roth himself once identified the swaggering tone of Bellow's Adventures of Augie March with “the same sort of assertive gusto that the musical sons of immigrant Jews—Irving Berlin, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bernstein—brought to America’s radios, theatres, and concert halls by staking their claim to America (as subject, as inspiration, as audience)." When John Updike—a great novelist who is as not-Jewish as they come—wanted to create a sort of alter ego for himself, he created Henry Bech, because obviously his fictional Great American Novelist would have to be a Jew.

What Franklin Foer and I learned in the course of editing Jewish Jocks is that sports, too, is a realm in which Jewish innovations ended up influencing everyone else. The no-look passes and backdoor cuts of basketball trace their lineage to turn-of-the-century New York City, where smaller Jews devised ingenious strategems to defeat squads representing more physically endowed ethnicities; as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein notes in her essay on Barney Sedran (the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame), Coach Harry Baum imported some of those commonplace concepts from lacrosse. In football, Benny Friedman and Sid Luckman (profiled by Rich Cohen in our book) invented the modern quarterback position as we know it; Howard Cosell (whom David Remnick wrote about) was the reason many fans tuned into Monday Night Football, which helped make that sport the massive spectacle it is today; and as Jonathan Mahler notes in our book, Daniel Okrent, by inventing fantasy sports, turned us into a nation of number-crunching Jewish sports fans. Cue the closing strains of "Rhapsody in Blue."

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic. Previously, he was a staff writer at Tablet, where his blog, The Scroll, won the 2011 National Magazine Award.

New Reviews

Friday, November 09, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


Friday, November 09, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about how to succeed in academia without doing any research and Super Tuesday. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Are Israeli guys real men? Yes, I mean the tank commanders and pilots and infantry sergeants. The ones who are viewed in so many places as the type specimens of the tough macho Jew.

That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret’s short story “Cocked and Locked,” about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.

“Wimps,” like Keret’s story, portrays Israeli soldiers facing off against Palestinians in the territories. In the case of my chapter, it’s the height of the First Intifada in 1988. As well as chronicling how my unit coped with the challenges and moral issues presented by the Palestinian uprising, my chapter explores the relationship between army service and masculinity.

In Keret’s story, a young Palestinian man taunts an Israeli soldier by portraying him as a sexual object used by his sergeant. The goading indeed drives the soldier into an unexpected response, but perhaps not for the reasons that an American reader might presume.

The men in Company C are tough and determined, but they are also family men and civilians serving in the army for a couple months a year. They’ve been through wars but most of them have children. Two of them are gay, a fact that the other soldiers accept matter-of-factly and without feeling that their masculinity is threatened. And remember, this is at a time when homosexuality was forbidden in the US army, on the grounds that the presence of gay soldiers in a military unit would play havoc with “unit cohesion” and destroy it as a fighting force.

Comic relief in “Wimps” is provided by Marcel Levy, a French immigrant and paparazzo photographer who boasts of sleeping with every single one of the celebrity actresses he manages to snap in various states of undress. The other men think he’s totally off the wall. Levy’s braggadocio about his purported military exploits is one reason; another is that sexual conquest is not something that these men see as particularly masculine behavior. Both the attitudes toward gay men and toward casual sex show, in my mind, that there are important differences between Israeli and American concepts of masculinity. I don’t mean to say that Israeli men aren’t macho in their own and often infuriating way, but it’s important to understand the contrasts.

After pointing this out, I asked the students what they thought bugged the soldier in Keret’s story and what caused him to take the dramatic action he takes at the end. I suspect that before our discussion the students might have assumed that the soldier felt that his masculinity was threatened—that he was infuriated because a Palestinian guy his own age was accusing him of being queer. 

One of the students hit it on the head, in my opinion. “I think he’s upset,” she suggested, “because the Palestinian is perverting the soldier’s relationship with his sergeant.” In other words, he’s suggesting that the soldier’s love for his sergeant is a sexual love rather than the love that prevails among soldiers who fight side by side.

Does that make Israeli soldiers wimps? You might want to read the Company C to find out. An electronic edition, for Kindle, Ipad, and other platforms, will be available very soon. The same goes for my book on the Jordan Rift valley, Israel’s eastern boundary land, A Crack in the Earth. Watch my Facebook page and website for the official announcement, or write to me at and I’ll send you an e-mail notice when the books are out.

Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.

Writing Biography: The Historian’s Challenge, Part 2

Thursday, November 08, 2012 | Permalink

On Tuesday, Gerald Sorin wrote about ambivalence toward the genre of biography. Today, he considers the question: Can the biographer or their readers really know the subject fully? He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Can biographers really know their subjects fully? Was Mark Twain right when he said that “a man’s real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself?” And what about Freud who went even further: “Whoever turns biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to embellishment, and even to dissembling his own lack of understanding, for biographical truth is not to be had.”

Well, if biographical truth is not to be had, if a self is actually unknowable, can we at least analyze the work of the artist or the writer or the activist as a clue to the meaning of the life? Here a biographer is challenged by the postmodernists or deconstructionists who argue for “the death of the author,” and who see texts and even behavior as totally independent entities, neither of which tells us anything about their human creators. Not surprisingly, I take a somewhat different position. I acknowledge the existence of authors. Of course, the writing of any particular author may not be – and very often is not – autobiographical. Indeed, biographers, or general readers for that matter, who concentrate on ferreting out the self-referential, often miss the satisfaction of immersing themselves in the creative imagination of the writer. In any case, for me, authors are neither absent nor entirely inscrutable. Why otherwise would I have undertaken a biography of so prolific a writer as Fast, whose early writings seemed to have moved an entire generation of Jews in the direction of political liberalism, or of Irving Howe, who in his literary criticism and teaching fought fiercely against the “death of the author” school?

Of course, all of us remain partially hidden and variegated, and in cases like Howe or Fast, perhaps even more complexly so. In writing about these men then, I make no claim to definitiveness nor do I use a narrative strategy that projects a unified persona. Fast, for example, presents a case of extraordinary social mobility, a man who became wealthy writing more than 150 stories, 20 screenplays, and nearly 100 books, several selling in the tens of millions of copies; but he also forever carried within himself characteristics and memories of having been a poor street urchin. Moreover, Fast was not only a writer, but a brother, father, husband, son of immigrants, a Jew, a Communist, an “unfriendly witness,” a prisoner, and a Hollywood personality.

Many selves, many roles – several of which led Fast into inconsistency and even apparent contradiction. Still, the historian as biographer, at least this one, believes that human beings are not just a Babel of voices, and that there are such things as individuals who are knowable, at least in part. Even playwright Samuel Beckett, the prince of obscurity and ambiguity, eventually wrote, “In the place where I have always found myself… it is no longer wholly dark or wholly silent.”

Gerald Sorin's most recent book, Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane, is now available. Gerald won the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in History for Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent.

Translations and Translators

Thursday, November 08, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

If you're looking for a theme for your book club, this is a great one! See below for a few of our translated recommendations as well as a few articles on the process itself. Find the complete list here.

The Hebrew Translator on Translation by Jessica Cohen

The Tower of Babel and Crisis of Translation by Ellen Frankel

The Act of Self-Translation by Michael Idov

How to Succeed in Academics Without Doing Any Research by Haim Watzman


How to Succeed in Academics Without Doing Any Research

Wednesday, November 07, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Haim Watzman wrote about Super Tuesday, journalism, and love. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.

Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that. My family gets fed thanks to books that other people write, people who need my help to present their ideas to the public. Sometimes I translate in the simple sense of the word—that is, recast a Hebrew work in English. But the specific niche I’ve developed over the years is that of translator/editor, or perhaps bilingual book doctor would be a better term. That means I don’t just transfer prose from one language to another but also help the author rewrite the book.

Of course, the substance remains that of the scholar. But substance needs presentation. I feel privileged to have helped bring the work of Israeli scholars before the English-speaking world while making them more reader-friendly books than they would otherwise have been.

While it’s hardly ideal, the pressures are such that I often work on two or three book translations or edits at the same time, alongside my own writing. Right now I’m translating a book on the Mossad by Ronen Bergman of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and a book about Eliezer Gruenbaum, a Jewish Communist who became a kapo at Auschwitz, by the historian Tuvia Friling.

On top of that, I’m editing the English version of one of the Israeli publication phenomena of the past year. Yuval Noah Harari’s history of the world, from humankind’s evolution in Africa to the present day, has been a bestseller in Hebrew. It’s based on the survey course he teaches, which has become one of the university’s most popular classes.

Harari’s book covers a lot of ground that I’ve written about in my career as a journalist covering research and science, so as I edit I disagree, debate, and argue points with him. Like most of my clients, Harari appreciates this deep involvement in his work. I am, of course, an amateur scholar, not a real one, so it’s the client who makes the final decisions about the book’s ideas and arguments. But it’s a real pleasure to engage in disputations with my authors.

And, of course, I learn a great deal in the process. Almost enough to be taken for a professor myself.

Visit Haim Watzman's official website here.

Writing Biography: The Historian’s Challenge, Part 1

Tuesday, November 06, 2012 | Permalink
Gerald Sorin's most recent book, Howard Fast: Life and Literature in the Left Lane, is now available. Gerald won the 2003 National Jewish Book Award in History for Irving Howe: A Life of Passionate Dissent. He will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

For historians, writing biography presents a number of challenges. One of the more important comes from scholars who tend to classify biography as “an inferior type of history.” For example, three years ago the American Historical Society staged a roundtable on “biography as history,” invitations to which included the following : “For a long time historians have been ambivalent about the genre of biography…. Many are skeptical of the capacity of biography to convey the kind of analytically sophisticated interpretation of the past that academics have long expected.”

But we biographers, even those such as myself who want to write cross-over books accessible to the educated lay public, don’t simply chart the course of a life from womb to tomb; we examine our subjects in dialectical relationship to the multiple worlds they inhabit, social, political, and cultural. My two subjects, Howard Fast and Irving Howe, for example, rose from immigrant poverty to eminence and wealth, and in Fast’s case immense wealth. Both were also political activists, and literary figures. And both bore the privileges, burdens, and complexities of being Jewish. Both were also involved, directly and indirectly, with events important to shaping the world of the twentieth century. It would have been next to impossible to neglect social context in biographies of these men.

Biographers are also often accused of voyeurism and sensationalism. Indeed, perhaps as acts of self-defense, several women and men of note have written their own biographies or memoirs – Howe wrote at least one, depending how you count; Fast, two – conceivably as a way of making one’s own case before a prosecutorial or gossip-mongering historian/biographer might appear on the scene. Elsa Morante, the Italian writer and wife of novelist Alberto Moravia, left a warning for biographers: To expose “the private life of a writer is gossip,” she said, “and gossip no matter about whom offends me.” Janet Malcolm, the controversial American journalist goes further, characterizing biographers as burglars, parasites, and obsessive stalkers who trespass and injure.

But there is no escape from the "private" for anyone involved in the biographical process, which by necessity is an act of conscious psychological intrusion. From my reading of Fast’s personal correspondence and my questioning of his family members I learned, for example, that the prolific novelist was disliked for his insensitivity and arrogance by many relatives, including his children; that he had an enormous ego which, as his grand-daughter said, made it clear that he “could be the only star in the room;” and that though married to his first wife Bette for 57 years, Fast had had several affairs, some with actresses when he was a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1970s. I also discovered that Fast could be quite generous. He quietly supported his older sister for most of her life; he helped his brother financially from time to time; he gifted his house to his daughter and her husband when he moved into a larger one, and without hesitation he took in friends in trouble or neighbors in danger.

One might ask whether this kind of information ought to be included in a biography of a man whose central story was neither his generosity, nor his tendency to alienate those around him, nor his imitation of Don Juan, but his rise from neglected street kid to world-renowned writer worth many millions of dollars—and who in the midst of his remarkable journey not only became a Marxist, but by the late 1940s, had become the public face of the Communist Party in America – a transformation which had momentous consequences for his life, his writing, and his sense of identity.

For some historians Fast’s arrogance and infidelities might be irrelevant. For me, a historian who is also a biographer, the information is important not so much because there are links, even if indirect, between Fast’s personal life and his politics and his writingbut even more importantly, because his private behavior (or anyone else’s for that matter) is a significant part of his identity, and so belongs in what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls “thick description” – an attempt at explanation which makes the subject’s behavior more fully meaningful to readers who don’t have the same or similar experiences.

Which brings me to yet another challenge: can the biographer or their readers really know the subject fully?

Check back here on Thursday for Part 2.