The ProsenPeople

Learning to Breathe

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jessica Soffer wrote about a precious treat from the Passover seder plate. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I needed something. Everyone was dying. Or at least a lot of people were dying and it felt like everyone might, including me, die at the drop of a hat. I was having panic attacks on the subway. I was avoiding elevators and scaffolding and spinach and caffeine and planes and hospitals and graveyards.

I couldn’t breathe.

My parents are not religious. Someone told me to try yoga.

I was a gymnast for the great majority of my childhood. Yoga came easily. I breezed through the ranks.

I ended up in an Ashtanga class in Amagansett and had no idea what I was in for.

Ashtanga doesn’t bill itself as the “yoga of forced breathing,” but it might as well. It’s the same series, “system” of movements done (or supposed to be done) every morning, every day. It is strenuous and sequential and smart. At the core of it is the notion of synchronizing breath with movement. For every movement, a breath, which sounds nice enough but is challenging. Very. Because of the intensity of the poses, most people sweat. A lot. It’s different from Bikram in that the heat you create is from the inside out. It’s all you. Ujjayi breathing, or “victorious breath,” consists of steady inhales and exhales through the nose, equal in duration, accompanied by the “ocean sound” made by constricting the throat as one does to whisper. Ujjayi’s purpose: improve endurance, decrease distractions, release tension, warm the blood, which improves circulation and cleanses toxins and regulates heat. Too, and most importantly to me, Ujjayi calms the mind. Breath becomes a rhythm, a lullaby. In and out and in and out and in and out.

My first Ashtanga class nearly killed me—and got me completely hooked. My first Ashtanga teacher has been my only one really, or at least the only one that’s really mattered. She’s a die-hard. If she cannot hear your “ocean sound,” she says so. If she sees your mouth open, she says so. And if you cannot breathe, in and out and in and out and in and out, you cannot. You just cannot. It took me many months to get a place where I was comfortable with the poses, and then even longer to a place where the breath was as crucial as the positions. But eventually it was. So much so. In and out and in and out and in and out.

At first, I stopped thinking about dying because I was focused on the movements, on not messing up. After a while, I stopped thinking about dying because I was trying to do the movements better. When I became halfway decent, I stopped thinking because I was focused on the breath. On better breath.

I am aware that I said “better,” regarding yoga. Kill me. I am no longer afraid. On a plane, in turbulent moments, I practice Ujjayi. Elevators don’t paralyze me. Bring on the spinach. I am better.

In Ashtanga, I didn’t find God. I did, however, learn to breathe. I breathed like I meant it and then I breathed because I had to. You have to. In and out and in and out and in and out. And by breathing I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. Just the opposite. I was all breath.

Win a signed copy of Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

Precious Haroset

Monday, March 25, 2013 | Permalink

Jessica Soffer's debut novel, Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots, will be published on April 16th. Win a signed copy here. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

I am bored to death, dying of starvation and on the brink of losing my mind at Passover dinner at my father’s sister’s house on Long Island. I’m four, maybe five. My mother has refilled my grape juice many more than four times but it’s not cutting it. She has a look on her face like she would have made a PB&J if she’d known what she was in for—what we were both in for—but she didn’t. There are many more relatives visiting from Israel than usual, which means, apparently, that there is no goofing around and no snacking. Who knew? We didn’t. I will die of starvation, I think to myself. They will find me in a puddle of grape juice with the yarmulke I’ve demanded to wear over my face, dead.

But I don’t die. Instead, I put my head into my mother’s lap and quickly fall into a deep sleep. Eventually, she nudges me awake. I sit up. Why am I awake? Same stuff, different blessing. But then I see. From across the table, my father is giving me the eye. I look around, everyone is engrossed in the text and so I slink under the table, lift up a bit of tablecloth to let in light. There are twenty sets of adult shoes and I have the urge to untie every one. But I’ve got bigger fish to fry. My father’s got a handful of romaine lettuce from who knows where and I snatch it up, scarf it down, barely chewing. I’m a rabbit on speed. I yank on his pant leg for more. What else you got? He lifts his index finger. One second. He can do better, I’m thinking. I know he can do better. I pray like they do in the movies. It’s Passover, after all. Moments later, the whitecap curl of a hardboiled egg has arrived. I’ve willed it here, I think. I should pray more often. I nearly skin my father’s fingers with my teeth. I wonder why I don’t eat eggs at every moment of every day. They are heaven. Nothing better. But I’m still hungry. I’m dying again. I wait. Is that it? I start untying my father’s shoes. He catches my drift. Another egg. Untying. Then another. Now, I’m over eggs. I never want to see an egg again.

Still, I wait.

Just before I lose hope, die not of starvation but egg overdose, my father’s palm is open and flat in front of me, as if revealing the tiniest baby bird. But it’s better than that. It’s a raft of matzo, a cluster of haroset balancing on top, shimmering and precious like something stolen from the Hall of Minerals and Gems at the Museum of Natural History. I treat it as he did, lift it from his hand into mine with care. Ever so gently. Little tiny nibbles. The sweetest. The most amazing. This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Why don’t I eat this every moment of every day? I savor it.

My father claps his hands without making a sound. Show’s over, folks, and just in time. I make my way back to my seat, my mother brushing a crumb off my bottom lip, the parsley is being passed around and I’m up. “No,” I say but my mother ignores me, puts a pile of it on my plate. “I’m full,” I begin to say but she covers my mouth with her hand, and smiles graciously at the crowd. “She’s starving,” she says and I know to nod.

Read more about Jessica Soffer here.

Related: Iraqi Jews Reading List

New Reviews

Friday, March 22, 2013 | Permalink

This week's reviews:


Book Cover of the Week: Kosher

Thursday, March 21, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

A new title pubbing from Harvard University Press in May, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Timothy D. Lytton), explores kosher food regulation. Read a Q&A with Lytton here.

View past "Book Cover of the Week" posts here.

Self-Published Jewish-Themed Books Come of Age

Wednesday, March 20, 2013 | Permalink

by Stephen Witt

In the brave new digital world of the book business, self-published authors enjoy a new clout. And every week this translates into more self-published titles appearing on best seller lists across the nation than ever before. At the same time, traditional publishers, reviewers, and bookstores that once shunned self-published titles are now embracing these changes or risk falling into antiquity.

“Certainly, the validity of publishing on your own is now unquestioned,” says Jon Fine,’s director (the first) of author & publisher relations. “Even traditional publishers regularly trumpet the authors they’ve discovered from the self-published ranks. And traditionally successful authors are increasingly using services like Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace, and others to reach their audiences in new and creative ways. The opportunity to tell your story, to a few or to many, has never been greater."

This trend is also reflected in the growing number of Jewish writers who are bucking the traditional publishing business and self-publishing their books, including Arizona-based Linda Pressman, whose Holocaust-related tome, Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors and Skokie, was named the 2012 Grand Prize Winner in the 20th Annual Writer's Digest Self-Published Book Contest.

“I was previously represented by an agent who was unable to sell an earlier version of my manuscript,” said Pressman. “After our relationship ended I spent quite a while fixing the manuscript and building up my name recognition. I knew that the editors and publishing houses were being extremely cautious about what they were publishing and I felt it was unlikely that I'd be able to get a deal, having been turned down previously. Luckily, self-publishing had grown in the same time period and was a great option for me since I had built a reader base ready to read my work.”

Pressman’s reader base comes from both her humorous blog, BarMitzvahzilla, and her involvement as an editor and blogger for Poetica Magazine, a self-described vanity press that includes a print and online literary journal focusing on contemporary Jewish thought. But she also displays marketing savvy.

“I hired two publicists in the time period since my book was published. The cost makes this somewhat prohibitive. Of great help was one who helped me with book tours, local appearances, and submissions to various reviewers,” said Pressman.

“Much of my marketing was through social media that I did on my own. From finding Facebook Groups focused on topics in my book (Skokie, Survivors, Chicago, Memoir writers, etc.), to Twitter and blogging – these were all immensely helpful in marketing and promoting the book. An Amazon Author page and Looking Up Facebook page, both to post news about the book and author appearances, has also been helpful,” she added.

Pressman said the most amazing thing about self-publishing is the thing that's also the hardest: it's all up to you. There won't be a huge publishing house standing behind you, promoting your work, but you'll also have the satisfaction of knowing that any success is also your own,” she said.

“From a Jewish standpoint, I found that my work, being stereotyped as "Holocaust," did not find its place in traditional publishing but that there's actually a huge readership out there for Jewish writers and Jewish topics,” said Pressman.

Another self-published Jewish Holocaust author is Rimma Rose, a young Russian-American, whose debut novel, Cursed to Survive, has been garnering favorable reviews and is finding its own market. Rose’s take on the Holocaust is a beauty-and-beast story that reads more like a mystical mystery influenced by the Twilight series, and is, in fact, the first of a series of books featuring many of the same characters.

“I decided to self-publish my first book, because I was terrified of sending my manuscript to various places without knowing what would happen to it,” said Rose. “I read about self-publishing and it seemed easy and fast and I went for it. The biggest advantage of self-publishing is a total control I have over my work. The biggest pitfall of self-publishing is the fact that along with total control, the author is also responsible for promotions, public relations, and everything else.”

While self-published authors continue taking a greater market share this also means a reduced role in the book industry for editors, marketers, and promoters in traditional publishing houses along with their related network of agents, distributors, reviewers, and both chain and independent bookstores. Believers in this traditional model quickly point out its role as gatekeeper for readers, with the ability to curate what they see and judge as redeemable literature. They also point out some of the growing pains in self-publishing, such as the frequent lack of proper editing and professional book design.

But self-published authors counter that they enjoy a more mobile advantage and lower financial overhead than the traditional publishing model with its layers of decision makers. They are free, for example, to redesign covers and include stronger copy and story editing in subsequent editions at manageable costs. They can even utilize these improvements to re-launch their book, garnering even more promotion.

On the promotional end, self-published Jewish authors can easily find a multitude of Jewish-themed websites and blogs that cater to everything from the most observant Jews to the most secular and alternative Jewish lifestyles.

On the manufacturing side, Amazon’s CreateSpace service has been a game changer. With price ranges that fit almost every self-published author’s budget, CreateSpace will design and format both the cover and interior of the work plus carry it for distribution and sales on its website and list it on their promotional networks. They also give good discounts for author copies and a much higher royalty rate than traditional publishers through sales on Amazon.

Amazon is also a leader in e-books with its Kindle device, while other companies, such as BookBaby, convert an author’s work into other e-book formats compatible with such devices as the Nook, Sony Reader, and Kobo.

“I've found that, with the lower price of my e-book version, I sell many more of them than the hard copies per month,” said Pressman. “Due to the size of my book (348 pages) and the manufacturing costs, I can't lower the price on the physical book to encourage greater sales, but I can do so with the e-book version.”

My road to self-publishing began in 2002 when I started chatting up the African-American self-published novelists and poets who sell their books on the Fulton Mall in downtown Brooklyn. At the time I was a full-time reporter at a chain of papers in Brooklyn and every night I’d go home and squeeze out 500 words writing my first novel, American Moses. My mindset back then was I wanted a mainstream publishing deal. After hundreds of rejections a small agent finally agreed to take on American Moses and then the rejections started pouring in from publishing houses big and small.

Meanwhile, as I wrote draft after draft, the Fulton Street authors shared with me their triumphs and pitfalls to self-publishing and recommended books about it, which I read. Finally, in 2008, I decided that if these writers of contemporary urban literature were being locked out of the publishing industry for whatever reason then I was in excellent company. So I fired my agent and took the plunge by registering Never Sink Books (NSB) as my publishing business.

In 2009, I published American Moses to very good reviews, and a YouTube interview of me about the novel has over 20,000 hits and counting. American Moses has made its money back and continues to sell.

Then in 2010, I took a buyout from my job as a reporter to write my second novel, The Street Singer: A Tale of Sex, Money and Power in a Changing Brooklyn, which I self-published in September 2012. It’s a satire about a subway musician who gets involved with helping Brooklyn land a basketball team. Both the daily Metro and the Daily News wrote stories on it and the Daily News gave it an excellent review. In November, I sold the book publishing rights to Changing Lives Press.

Currently, I’m on a guerilla marketing plan in that I sell both of my novels in the subway, car-to-car. You may have even heard my pitch. “That’s right, ladies and gentleman – for ten dollars – the price of two cups of Starbucks coffee – you can enrich your mind.”

By far, the coolest thing about selling my novels in the subway is the people I meet. They include agents and readers, doers and dreamers. A number of people have given me their positive essence in the space of one subway stop in the form of words of encouragement and/or purchases of my books.

Also cool is the fact that I have two published novels on the market and I’m working on my third. As Pressman says, the bottom line is that how an author is published now means much less than what it is that the author publishes.

“I believe that, because of consumer demand, books will become lower priced, creating more of an equal playing field, and I don’t know exactly how this will look, but I know there will have to be some web-based method of finding the books, like Internet bookstore browsing, where perhaps the site owners curate the offerings (much as independent bookstores do now) and readers trust their recommendations,” she said.

Stephen Witt's Top Five "Online Resources for Writers Looking to Self-Publish" can be found here.

Stephen Witt is an award-winning journalist with two novels. This includes the self-published American Moses (2009) on his Never Sink Books imprint, and The Street Singer (2012) published by Changing Lives Press. Reach him at

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Shani Boianjiu

Monday, March 18, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Over the next several weeks, we'll be introducing you to the five fiction finalists for this year's Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Last week, we introduced you to Stuart Nadler, who shared his love for the shorty story with our readers. Today, we hear from Shani Boianjiu, an Israeli writer who was named the youngest recipient ever of the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 and whose debut novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid was excerpted in the New Yorker. In a recent JBC/Jewcy #JLit Twitter Book Club, Shani discussed why she's NOT the voice of her generation ("My book is weird, and mine, and does not represnt anyone"), the many reviews and articles about her book, and the Israeli army. Below, find out more about the author who, in her first novel, "shows considerable range, creating surreal, absurd dilemmas for her characters:"

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

That the stakes are so high—there are so many wonderful books out there, so you must write something that buys you a seat at the table or not do it at all. Also, being alone.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

When I was in the army I used to make up stories during long guarding shifts and keep them in my head for weeks, retelling them to myself and tweeking them a bit in my head until I reached a computer and finally typed the story down. So I would say that waiting had been my inspiration for writing fiction. Also my love of books. Reading makes me feel alive in a way nothing else ever had.

Who is your intended audience?

A twenty-four-year-old Chinese American girl from Marlborough, MA who works at Target. Also a couple of other people I love.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Yes. It is a book!

What are you reading now?

Contemporary memoirs. Basically every memoir that was written in the last five years. All of them. And at the same time. I have no idea why. Also, [the forthcoming novel] We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Bruno Schulz’s stories.

Top 5 Favorite Books

That’s impossible for me to answer, and it changes every minute, but if I had to choose five right now I’d say:

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

I never decided to become a writer; I decided to write. I think the first time I decided to do that I was seventeen, and waiting for a train. I still have to decide to write every time I do it though.

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

I wish to write forever stories—stories that only I can write and that will live in people’s heads and have lives of their own inside those heads. It does not matter to me how many heads, only that the story be worthy to live forever in someone’s head. I am still far from that, which is why I have to work hard.

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

I usually get an idea for a story or a scene or a character and then I keep it in my head and retell it to myself hundreds of times until I feel like my head will explode if I don’t type the story down immediately. When I do type down what I have in my head, I spend ten percent of my time actually writing and the rest jumping around in my room and listening to music.

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

I want them to care and think deeply about the lives of people who don’t exist and who they cannot imagine being.

Shani Boianjiu was born in Jerusalem in 1987 and is from an Iraqi and Romanian background. She was raised in a small town on the Lebanese border. At the age of eighteen, she entered the Israeli Defense Forces and served for two years. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid is her first book.

New Reviews

Friday, March 15, 2013 | Permalink
This week's reviews:

Rabbi Gafni's Revenge

Friday, March 15, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Yuval Elizur examined religious political power in Israel and January's elections and Lawrence Malkin discussed the tension between tradition and modernity in contemporary Judaism and its consequences. Today, Yuval Elizur reveals Rabbi Moshe Gafni's powerful hand. Yuval and Lawrence are the co-authors of the recently published The War Within: Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation. They have been blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.

Of all the representatives of the religious parties in Israel’s Knesset, none have been more powerful or outspoken than Moshe Gafni, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who served as Chairman of the Finance Committee in the last parliament. In this key fiscal position, the rabbi was a master at diverting funds to haredi causes, especially yeshiva subsidies to the separate school system devoted mainly to teaching and debating the Torah—the religious academies that some secular Jews have angrily characterized as Jewish madrassas.

Now that secular representatives are in the ascendant following January’s national elections, Gafni has turned angrily on Benjamin Netanyahu, accusing his former political ally of betrayal. But in order to form a coalition Netanyahu needs the votes of two new parties, one the tribune of religious nationalists and the other of secular Israelis. Both refuse to serve in any government that includes ultras like Rabbi Gafni, largely because his supporters demand continued exemption from military service.

In the snake pit of Israeli politics, it could be payback time for Bibi for abandoning his ultra-Orthodox supporters in order to stay in power as prime minister, and this could have international repercussions far beyond the local problems of the yeshivot. The rabbi has warned that Netanyahu will soon "be sorry" for deceiving him and the other representatives of the ultras by "shamefully" leaving them out of power.

In an article in the popular daily Yedioth Aharonot, Rabbi Gafni admitted that although in his former capacity as Finance Committee chairman he was supposed to oversee the expenditures formally approved by the Knesset, almost every day money was dispensed "under the radar"—his words—for the benefit of Netanyahu’s Likud party, then the dominant parliamentary group. Since Gafni now has blown the whistle on what are politely called “unofficial” budgets, that almost certainly means the end of such disbursements, not only for the religious parties but for the parties that will serve in government when the new coalition is formed, probably later this month.

What disturbs Gafni and his religious colleagues most are the warnings expressed not only by the politicians but above all by the technicians and experts of the Ministry of Finance. They were, of course, fully aware of the tricks used to pad budgets and transfer government money off the books, but they dared not clash with any Likud finance minister or with Gafni’s own Knesset Finance Committee.

That leaves Gafni holding a powerful hand that could embarrass Netanyahu if he shows it. The rabbi made it clear that through the years he had accumulated substantial information about how to tamper with the budget and would have no hesitation in using it against the ruling parties that are willing to shut him out of government and probably will succeed. His most powerful trump most likely would be disclosing payments believed to have been funneled through Bibi’s former government to support illegal West Bank settlements, for example the ones that put down a few armed families in trailers atop Palestinian hilltops and then spread, seeking official recognition.

The establishment and expansion of these and other more organized settlements is viewed by the Obama administration as a principal barrier to any peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and Netanyahu has always insisted they do not have the support of his government. It is not hard to imagine how it would put him at a disadvantage if all this comes out while he is dealing with Washington.

Yuval Elizur is a sixth generation Israeli, living in Jerusalem. The author of several books, he is a former deputy editor and economics reporter for Israel’s largest daily newspaper Ma’ariv, and has served as a Jerusalem correspondent for The Washington Post and The Boston Globe. A veteran of two wars, he was the Columbia School of Journalism’s first Israeli graduate.

A Novel About Early Childhood

Thursday, March 14, 2013 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Sami Rohr Prize winner Austin Ratner discussed the land of the living versus the land of "The Princess Bride." He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Some academics have observed that young Jewish writers do not mine their personal lives for material in the same way that Jewish writers did a generation ago. In my own case, this is and isn't true. My first novel, The Jump Artist, was based on someone else’s life and took place in lands and days disparate from my own. My second novel, In the Land of the Living, which is being released by Little Brown this week, draws on my own personal experiences and on events in the history of my own family. It’s first and foremost about loss at a tender age, and finding your way out from under the pall of grief, back to the land of the living, and to all that makes life worth living. (Why am I not on Oprah’s book list?)

If a book gets its license to exist from a fresh or unique subject, then my book’s claim would lie in its manner of depicting early childhood. Most novels do not incorporate early childhood into their storylines or into their characters at all, except in metaphorical ways. Mary Shelley and Toni Morrison are two writers who invented rather ingenious novelistic contraptions to represent early childhood: Shelley did it by writing of a human man made from scratch and educated (and abused) like a child, Morrison by turning a dead child into an adult ghost in Beloved. In his autobiographical novel Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, Tolstoy wrote about his mother’s death, which happened when he was two, but he revised his age to something like eight to make the scenes more artistically manageable. James Joyce writes directly of early childhood in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but he does so impressionistically and does not draw any firm connections between those opening early childhood scenes and later ones. I have taken a different approach by depicting early childhood experiences directly and carrying through their implications in every other scene of the book.

Having said that, there is something suspicious to me in the notion that a novel needs “uniqueness” in order to be valuable. “Uniqueness” sounds a lot like “competitive advantage”—a phrase from the world of commerce, not literature. A writer sets out to portray what is true to him or her, and also, usually, what is beautiful. New styles, new philosophies, new insights into character, forays into unknown subject matter—these things come about automatically when new voices do a good job examining the same old world on a cutting edge that is provided to them by time itself: another day.

Austin Ratner's new novel, In the Land of the Living, is now available.

A Trip to Russ & Daughters

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | Permalink

JBC's Justin Petrillo travels to Russ & Daughters for some very important research for his review of Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built: